A quiet struggle for equal rights: the Environmental Justice movement
Although I created the title for this post, as an environmental justice advocate, I don’t agree with it. Every environmental justice advocate I know is passionate. Many use a loud voice to tell their stories and to give inspiring messages. Some are more quiet like myself, but what they say is equally as important to the movement. At every chance we get, we try and educate people about the movement. But when I thought of this title, I was thinking about the amount of attention that environmental justice receives. It certainly could be more. Of course, with the growing interest in environmentalism and climate justice comes a growing interest in environmental justice as well, but not enough from communities of color or low-income communities. Since these communities are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation, I find this disheartening.
I’ll speak on behalf of the Black community since that is the community that I best identify with. I believe that what throws many off is the word “environmental.” Environmentalists are generally believed to be white. They’re generally believed to be hippies and vegetarians who ride their bikes, recycle, and buy overpriced organic food and clothing. Environmentalists tend to believe in saving the life of a tree or a polar bear more than helping other people. Ahh, stereotypes.
I’m not going to say that there are no environmentalists who may fit this description, but this movement has something for everyone. Afterall, we can all benefit from taking better care of the planet. What the movement has for the Black community, as well as other communities, is environmental justice. And why not? The environmental justice movement began in a small, predominantly Black county in the south.
I’m certainly not saying that environmental racism (or classism) hasn’t been around for a very long time in Black towns and districts, on American Indian reservations, in border towns, and in Appalachia’s coal mining centers. But in 1982, in Warren County, North Carolina, the people fought back, gaining national attention.
In 1979, the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources along with the EPA authorities in the region chose Warren County as the location for their new landfill. The landfill would collect the over 30,000 gallons of toxic waste that contained polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, a poisonous, man-made fluid used for various mechanical purposes. Later investigation led the residents of Warren County to realize that the water table in their area was far too shallow to be unaffected by a landfill. The NAACP filed a law suit in the district court on behalf of Warren County’s citizens but ultimately lost. As the transportation of contaminated soil began in 1982, protests began. Famous photographs, like the one above, portray people lying on the road in front of incoming trucks. Despite all of their efforts, hundreds of protestors were arrested, and the trucks were able to make their way into the county with their deadly cargo.
Despite claims of safety by North Carolina officials and the EPA, the local water table was later proven to be contaminated by the landfill. Although this information was public and the protestors continued to demand reparations, the landfill wasn’t shut down until 2001, which was also the year when clean up began. Even after the completion of “detoxification” in Warren County, there is still evidence that the land and the water are still contaminated, and no official apology has been made to its residents.
Out of 93 counties Warren County, a poor, rural, Black community was singled out as as the site for a landfill that no sane person would want in their neighborhood. They were looking for people that they believed would be voiceless. Unable to gain any support from local or state politicians, the people were left to fight for themselves. And while the residents of Warren County, North Carolina were not voiceless, many weren’t willing to listen to them. So, during this Black History Month, and frankly, every month of every year, let us all make an effort to listen to all voices that are raised in protest against actions taken to diminish their health and their humanity.