Jennifer Bauer, Environmental Justice

[This essay was the winner of the 2010 Gandhian Forum Student Peace and Justice Writing Contest.]


Environmental Justice:

The Case of North Carolina, Warren County Protests


Jennifer Bauer



      In 1978 30,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil, originating from the Raleigh-based Ward Transfer Company, were illegally dumped along the road in fourteen counties of North Carolina. The PCBs laid on the ground for approximately a month before the soil was collected (Jacobs), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared it a superfund site. Respective members of the Ward Co. and the trucking company later pleaded guilty to the crime, but as Bullard effectively noted, “While the ‘midnight dumpers’ were fined and jailed, the innocent Afton community was handed a 20-year sentence of living in a toxic-waste prison” (2).

      The trial’s verdict did not provide a solution for where to place the contaminated soil, however. The final decision was to create a landfill within the state of North Carolina. As the July 1980 issue of The Progressive noted in its article, “The Poisoned Land”:

One of the first sites suggested was in sparsely populated, predominantly black Warren County, near the Virginia border. Opposition to that plan ran so deep that a January 1979 hearing before the EPA and state officials drew more than 700 people and lasted 7 hours (Jacobs  46).

Action was delayed as the site location was contested in court, but transfer of the soil began September 1982 regardless. It was completed despite substantial protests.

      The North Carolina Warren County protests may have succeeded in mobilizing people and gaining national publicity, but they failed to develop the “disruptive power” necessary to impact their electoral leaders and prevent becoming the site of a toxic waste dump.

The 1982 Warren County Protests

     The 1982 Warren County protests were “punctuated by pictures of grandmothers and ministers being hauled to jail” (Associated Press). Social Issues in America: An Encyclopedia recorded it as “For 6 weeks, citizens and activists…engaged in peaceful civil disobedience in an attempt to stop the dumping. One demonstration resulted in the arrest of more than 500 activists” (Ciment 626). The protests involved a variety of community leaders, as Bullard effectively described in his 2004 article: “Local county residents organized themselves into a fighting force that was later joined by national civil rights leaders, church leaders, black elected officials, environmental activists, labor leaders, and youth”(2).

     The public outcry against creating a landfill for the toxic waste in Warren County was originally so impressive the state considered other options before returning to the location (the dismissal of Chatham as the original site will be discussed later). As noted above, the EPA hearing drew more than “700 people and lasted 7 hours,” and the issue was later bogged down in the courts as the site selection was legally contested. Once the selection was sanctioned by the court, state officials began trucking contaminated soil to Warren County, and local community members blocked the roadways, physically obstructing each truck’s path. Warren County protesters also hosted rallies, and had one EPA official, William Sanjour, speak at their event to testify against the wisdom and safety of the landfill.

Piven & Cloward

      Piven & Cloward claim, in their text Poor People’s Movements, that the influence of a movement or protest is dependent on three factors: 1) Whether or not the contribution withheld is important to others; 2) Whether or not those who have been affected by the disruption have the resources to be conceded; and 3) Whether the obstructionist group can protect itself adequately from reprisals.

     This claim is part and parcel of another theory Piven makes regarding “disruptive power” in her text Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Piven defines “disruptive power” as “the leverage that results from the breakdown of institutionally regulated cooperation,” (21) and “a power strategy that rests on withdrawing cooperation in social relations” (23). Primarily an assertion that every relationship (professional, familial, or political) is based on “networks of cooperation and interdependence” (20), the theory also provides some leverage to those individuals traditionally thought to be on the lowest levels of the social hierarchy.

     As Piven notes: “In other words, although agricultural laborers, industrial workers, the people in the urban crowd, are all at the bottom end of hierarchical relations—and are kept at the bottom by wealth and force deploy—they nevertheless all also have potential power. That power consists in their ability to disrupt a pattern of ongoing and institutionalized cooperation that depends on their continuing contributions” (21). So long as institutions remain dependent on varying levels of power and control, such as boss and employee, their success will remain dependent on the inherent cooperation such a reciprocal relationship, however slanted, entails.

      One more similarity between Piven’s theories of disruptive power and influence is the mutual requirement that the protesting class or group be able to endure “the suspension of the cooperative relationship on which they also depend, and to withstand any reprisals they may incur” (30). Piven & Cloward reinforce this point when they remark:

Poor are in the worst position to benefit form defiance. They are so isolated from institutional participation the only ‘contribution’ they can withhold is quiescent behavior in civil life (Piven 23).

It is here that the two theories of “disruptive power” and influence collide. The influence of a protest can directly relate to its ability to harness the “disruptive power” of its members. As Piven remarked, that is especially difficult for the poor, whose ability to contribute (and therefore disrupt) society is limited by their isolation.

     Yet disruptive power can also create an influence within the electoral system, and thereby technically provide even poor people with another outlet for protest. Indeed, a protest can, for a brief time at least, “break the monopoly on political discourse otherwise held by politicians and the mass media. Where politicians seek to narrow the parameters of political discussion…movements can expand the political universe by bringing entirely new issues to the fore and by forcing new remedies into consideration” (Piven 104). This can, in turn, galvanize voters both for and against the proposed action. Either way, protests sometimes inject “an intensity into sectional conflicts that [make] compromise impossible” (Piven 73).

     A successful protest movement therefore, especially amongst the poor, must fulfill both Piven’s premises regarding its influence and disruptive power, as described above.

Disruptive Power & Influence in Warren County, 1982

      The 1982 Warren County protests succeeded in fulfilling some, but not all, of Piven’s premises regarding disruptive power and the creation of influence. Consider her claim that influence is dependent on the following three factors: 1) Whether or not the contribution withheld is important to others; 2) Whether or not those who have been affected by the disruption have the resources to be conceded; and 3) Whether the obstructionist group can protect itself adequately from reprisals. The Warren County protesters withheld their quiescent behavior in civil life. They blocked trucks and stood in roads as last-ditch attempts to prevent a landfill within their community; but given that withdrawal of cooperation was necessarily limited to the time during which the landfill remained potential and not a fact, the government could easily have assumed such substantial protests would end once the placement of the landfill could no longer be contested.

      The answer to the second point, questioning whether those affected by the disruption have the resources to be conceded, is debatable. It is true the state of North Carolina had a limited number of locations to place the landfill and Warren County was considered the best option, or the one with the least associated costs, but there were other scientific alternatives to the landfill itself. Two such alternatives included burning the contaminated materials through a specifically certified process, or transporting it to another state with a certified toxic waste disposal facility. Both were considered too expensive by the state. While there was limited malleability regarding changing the site of the landfill within North Carolina, the potential of the state to switch from a landfill to another scientific alternative remains open to question.

     The third point is clear. The Warren County protesters were not able to protect themselves from reprisals. More than 500 protesters were arrested in one demonstration alone. One woman, Patricia Somerville, was arrested 5 times, according to the Associated Press & Local Wire (2001), and none could protect themselves from the troopers in full riot gear who arrived to ensure the trucks made it to the landfill.

     As Bullard effectively noted in his article, “Warren County is vulnerable to a ‘quadruple whammy’ of being mostly black, poor, rural, and politically powerless.” (5). As the General Accounting Office (GAO)’s “Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities” Report documented (4), blacks comprised 66% of the county population, and had a substantially lower mean family income than all the other races combined. It also determined 90% of the county population that lived below the poverty level was black.

      This was not abnormal when considering the sites selected for hazardous waste landfills. Indeed, the GAO report found: “Blacks make up the majority of the population in three of the four communities where the landfills are located. At least 26 percent of the population in all four communities have income below the poverty level and most of this population is Black”(1).

      Yet the distinctive twist to the Warren County location was the GAO’s conclusion regarding site selection: “The State evaluated Chatham and Warren County sites essentially equivalent. However, the Chatham site was publicly owned and the county would not sell it, and according to the State Attorney General, the State did not have the power of eminent domain to take over the land. The Warren County site was selected for the landfill because it met the evaluative criteria and was available” (p. 9). This truly emphasizes Piven’s point regarding disruptive power and the vulnerability of the poor. Although Chatham and Warren County were exactly the same, the state selected the poorer Warren County because they had less political clout. Bullard’s characterization of Warren County as “vulnerable to a ‘quadruple whammy’ of being mostly black, poor, rural, and politically powerless,” (5) certainly epitomizes Piven’s theoretical claims.

Limited Success

      The Warren County protests of 1982 did not prevent the county from becoming the site of a hazardous waste landfill, but it did create a number of limited successes. Indeed, the protests succeeded in maintaining a high number of protesters, receiving national media attention, knowing and spreading the science behind hazardous waste disposal, becoming credited with creating today’s environmental justice movement, and providing inspiration to others. 

      As the NY Times noted, arrests did not prevent community members from turning out for the protests: “The arrests brought to about 350 the number of people charged or taken into custody as a result of the demonstrations the last 13 days. About 500 marchers took part in the protest today” (NY Times Sept. 28, 1982, “Around the Nation; Congressman and 120 Arrested at PCB Fight”). While some of those arrested were passionate residents dedicated to preventing the landfill, such as Patricia Somerville who was arrested 5 times throughout the protests, another included the District of Columbia’s Delegate to Congress.

      These articles by the NY Times were joined by other members of the national media. The October 27, 1980 Newsweek publication included an article “Toxic Waste Still Pollutes Roadways,” noting: “Physicians have noticed ‘a significant upsurge in congenital defects in the last twelve months,’ says D. Brenda Armstrong. The full impact of the spill may never be known—neither state nor local departments are monitoring the health effects” and “A Health Department memo charges that the new program for cleaning up chemical dumping ‘does not give the health effects…the highest priority’ and is ‘inconsistent, confusing, and politically motivated.’” Just as theWinston-Salem Journal, released an article, September 27, 1982, titled “Protests to Continue: EPA Official Criticizes Landfill.”

      The 1982 protests also succeeded in learning and spreading the science behind hazardous waste disposal. Indeed, William Sanjour, Chief of the Hazardous Wastes Assessment and Technology Branch of the EPA, spoke at one protest rally, describing the landfill’s lack of safety & security. Although William Sanjour had a lot of difficulty publishing some of his documents while he operated as a “whistle-blower” in the EPA, he has since begun blogging and has posted many of his essays and materials online. It includes the speech he made at the Warren County protest rally. In it, Sanjour revealed a great deal of scientific data and public policy and EPA realities which contrasted with the information officially distributed regarding the landfill in Warren County. 

      Sanjour, for example, was able to site an announcement from the Adminstrator of the EPA, notifying that landfills were neither insoluble or secure long-term: “There is good theoretical and empirical evidence that hazardous constituents which are placed in land disposal facilities will very likely migrate from the facility into the broader environment. This may occur in several years even many decades after placement of the wastes in the facility, but data and scientific prediction indicate that in most cases even with the application of best available land disposal technology it will occur eventually” (Sanjour 1-2).

      Another except reveals that the standard line that everything will be built “according to EPA regulations” is a smokescreen: there are no EPA regulations for landfills: “Well EPA never has, even to this day, come out with regulations for hazardous waste landfills. Which brings me back to your point, Mr. Chairman, of that EPA report which said this is a good place for a hazardous waste landfill. Since EPA has never come out with any standards of what is or isn’t a good site for a landfill, how can these gentlemen have possibly judged that this was a good place for one? There are no standards on which to judge it. EPA is still under a Court order to come out with those standards and they still haven’t” (Sanjour 4-5). He outlines how little oversight or regulations there really are, with no standards regarding acceptable pollution or who can own or operate the landfill. Indeed, Sanjour reveals “Under EPA regulations these facilities monitor their own operations, in other words they depend on what is called the honor system to determine whether or not they are working right. There is very little government inspection. Most of the monitoring is done by the facility operator himself (Sanjour 6). While the Warren County protests may not have prevented the landfill itself, they certainly succeeded in finding and distributing accurate scientific information regarding its impact and operations.

      Warren County was also successful in the sense that it is credited with creating today’s “environmental justice movement.” As the text, Social Issues in America: An Encyclopedia, effectively summarized:

…the protests of the Warren County citizenry helped create a new social class- and race-oriented perspective on environmental issues. In short, the Warren County struggle bridged two movements and principles: social justice and environmentalism (Ciment 628).

This view was shared by Bullard, who wrote, “The protesters also galvanized environmental justice as a national civil rights and human rights issue…No longer would environmentalism be viewed as the sole domain of elites and the white middle-class” (3). While many had protested against “locally unwanted land use” or LULUs, Warren County was the first landmark case in which environmental issues were considered from a race- and social class-oriented perspective.

      The Warren County protests also provided inspiration to others. Here are a few snippets from a variety of interviews: “Residents of contaminated communities must fight across generations to see a ‘clean up’ of their site. And that is a major victory indeed…More than a generation of local life has been completely disrupted, to the detriment of physical and psychological well-being” (Dr. Michael R. Edelstein, author of Contaminated Communities: Coping with Residential Toxic Exposure); “From the perspective of one who has often taken up the daunting task of engaging mainstream media to document the stories of environmental justice activists, I salute Warren County as the fork in the road that made the issue of environmental racism palatable and real” (Gwen McKiney, CEO, McKinney & Associates, a PR firm);  “Each and every victory propels the movement forward; the lessons learned are utilized in other struggles. The folks in Warren County, NC have been and continue to be an inspiration to all justice-loving people around the world” (Leslie G. Fields, Director, Global Sustainability Initiative, Friends of the Earth); “The community residents of Warren County are true pioneers of sustainability for all communities. We must never, never, never quit. Only quitting can defeat us” (Robin Morris Collin, Professor of Law, Willamette University College of Law).

Success: 20 Years Later. What Changed?

      Despite the limited success outlined above, the 1982 Warren County protests weren’t successful in their primary objective to prevent the toxic waste landfill. However, twenty years later, they were able to influence the state to completely clean up the site. What changed?

      Over the 20 years it took for Warren County to successfully gain a clean-up of the landfill, the only thing that really changed is the electoral leadership of the community. Remember, Warren County already had great protester turnout and numbers, significant national media coverage, and scientific support. The main difference was that the community was more recently able to harness their disruptive power enough to influence their electoral leaders.

      In the words of the Associated Press & Local Wire article, “Ceremony marks beginning of last phase in PCB fight,” published  June 12, 2001, “[Governor] Hunt promised the dump would be cleaned up and his promise wasn’t forgotten in the county. Hunt returned to the third of his four terms in 1993. Later that year it was discovered rain water had leaked into the dump’s plastic liner and it might leak and pollute groundwater. State officials and Warren County residents, led by former protester Dollie Burwell, agreed on how to clean up the mess and persuaded politicians to get money for the project.” It was the dedication of the Warren County protesters, and their ability to harness their disruptive power within the electoral system, that allowed them to keep Hunt on his toes and fulfill his election promise to clean up the site.

Lessons Learned

      Piven’s theories on disruptive power and the influence of movements were correct, at least in the case of Warren County in 1982. While some premises were met, and limited successes were experienced, the ultimate goal of preventing the landfill was not met until twenty years after the original protests; when the participants’ disruptive powers were harnessed enough to influence Governor Hunt’s election campaigns and his fulfillment of election day promises. Piven’s claim that influence depends on the ability to withstand or protect themselves from reprisals is also significant as the primary premise in which Warren County failed utterly. While the North Carolina Warren County protests may have succeeded in mobilizing people and gaining national publicity, they failed to develop the “disruptive power” necessary to impact their electoral leaders and prevent becoming the site of a hazardous waste landfill. There are many lessons one can take from Warren County to other communities facing similar situations today—but the most important is never to give up hope.



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