Pollution, Poverty, and People of Color: Birth of the Movement
"People have to stand up for what is right." A Q&A with two environmental justice pioneers.
In the fall of 1982, Warren County, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, drew national attention when civil rights figures, religious leaders and others joined local residents trying to stop construction of a toxic waste landfill. Protesters blocked trucks at the dumpsite, and hundreds were arrested during six weeks of demonstrations.
Although the effort ultimately failed, and more than 6,000 truckloads of soil laden with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were deposited there, the protest marked the birth of America's environmental justice movement. Soon afterward, seminal reports concluded that siting hazardous waste facilities in poor, minority areas was a nationwide problem.
The plight of this rural, mostly African American community began four years earlier, in the summer of 1978, when truckers hired by a Raleigh transformer company illegally drizzled PCB-laden oil along North Carolina roads rather than pay the cost of disposal. More than 30,000 gallons were dumped along some 240 miles of roadway in 14 counties.
The Rev. Willie T. Ramey III found the greasy substance near his church in Inez. Deborah Ferruccio encountered it on the drive home to Afton from a camping trip. Both were part of a small group of Warren County residents who began meeting shortly afterward, organizing a historic battle for their community's right to a clean and healthy environment.
Just before the 30th anniversary of the protests, Ferruccio and Ramey talked with Environmental Health News about their days as pioneers in the environmental justice movement.
Deborah Ferruccio was 24 when she and her then-husband, Ken, moved to Afton in 1977, leaving their academic world in Ohio for a log cabin in the North Carolina woods. A year later, after encountering yellow signs warning "Caution, PCB Chemicals on Highway Shoulders," it became their life's work to fight for environmental justice, a pursuit she continues today. At the time she spoke with EHN, she was preparing to combat a proposal to lift Virginia's ban on uranium mining. "We came here literally for the environment. How ironic for sure," said Ferruccio, now 59. "But neither one of us regrets the choices we made, because we never would have found out about these issues, we never would have done anything about them. We had chosen a life looking for meaning, and we ran into it."
"What really ignited the community was that they said they were going to put [the landfill] in regardless of public sentiment. And that really does not sit well with people who don't even have zoning because they don't want anybody to tell them how to build their chicken coops." -Deborah Ferrucio
Environmental Health News: How did the Warren County protest begin, and how did the community become mobilized?
Deborah Ferruccio: In December , right before Christmas, the state of North Carolina announced through the news media that they were going to put this landfill in Warren County. They hoped to sneak it in over Christmas… What really ignited the community was that they said they were going to put it in regardless of public sentiment. And that really does not sit well with people who don't even have zoning because they don't want anybody to tell them how to build their chicken coops… All of a sudden the county realized the same week that they were being targeted for a PCB landfill, they're also being targeted for a 700-acre comprehensive hazardous waste landfill… We found out about it just in time to put a notice in the paper, call a meeting, and in that few weeks that we had, a few of us in Afton literally ripped up the phone book and we each took X number of pages. I went door-to-door to all of the people who lived along the landfill road. [The response] was phenomenal. And that's one of the greatest parts of this story, because if we hadn't acted quickly, the state had intended to have the EPA approve that landfill, and they planned on having it built a couple months later. Our immediate response was necessary to slow the process down.
EHN: Were there racial conflicts as the movement grew? [At the time, Warren County had the state's highest percentage of African-Americans. The county had only recently integrated its schools and there was generally not much interaction between races.]
DF: From the beginning there was no racial conflict… We all met in front of the courthouse, and there were no issues because we all knew that PCBs are color-blind and they were going to affect us all… But historically, the people had still never had an issue that brought them together. This brought them together in a way where black and white people were in the churches singing and holding hands, they were in front of the capitol singing and holding hands…White people that were like the Daughters of the Confederacy with NAACP people. It was this new melding of people… We used that courthouse as a public forum to show that our sentiment was in fact going to be counted. And it didn't matter if we were a majority black, minority community – we were a white, black, native American people joining together as a body, and the politics of race was not going to divide us… You can't buy a person's land, his air, his community."
EHN: [For the next four years, residents try without success to stop the landfill through appeals to the governor and lawsuits.] It's the fall of 1982 and the dump trucks are about to move. What happens now?
DF: We started meeting in Coley Springs [Baptist] Church about three weeks before the trucks started rolling. White people who had never stepped foot in a black church were there every night… We at this point were showing the world as we kept marching, with the numbers getting larger instead of less over the days, they realized that this was a major issue. Until then, most environmental issues had been largely white and sort of Sierra Club and Save the Whales, and so this was a whole new thing.
When the trucks begin to roll… Rev. [Leon] White had come on board and he was willing to walk down as a civil rights leader with [her husband] Ken and lead this community in marches. And when he did it, because he was a pastor of the United Church of Christ and a field director for the United Church of Christ… when he got involved and they saw the passion of the Afton community… the black leadership on the national level became involved. So then the larger environmental community got involved…. We were putting a lot of pressure on the governor. We were embarrassing the governor every day we were out there getting arrested.
EHN: Despite the protests, the trucks kept arriving. By the end of October, 1982, the dumping was complete and the Warren County PCB landfill was covered with a cap. How did people feel about the outcome?
DF: The takeaway that they felt good about was that, one, it would have been an ongoing PCB landfill. They would have brought in toxic PCBs from everywhere. And secondly, we gave a heads up to people everywhere across this region… The people of Warren County know that we were the Paul Reveres.
EHN: How has the Warren County protest influenced environmental justice in the intervening years, and what legacy remains today?
DF: The community has found out that it is their civil right, and it's really their civic responsibility, to try to stop environmental injustice… Justice is not something that you do just because of justice. You do it because it's the right thing. And in environmental cases, that means protecting air, water, children, health, everything.
The legacy of the Warren County PCB protests is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they're united around an issue that is not clouded by politics or race or anything else…. We got a landfill, but I have to say it's one-tenth of what we could have gotten.
Rev. Willie T. Ramey III was 32 and had just taken over leadership of St. Stephen Baptist Church, an all-black congregation in Inez, when church-members told him about an oily substance on the side of the road. He suspected that it had been deliberately dumped. Soon after, he was contacted by a small group of residents in nearby Afton and invited to a meeting with the Ferruccios and others. "I was a little leery, being that Warren County had not been the most gracious place in the world to be in," recalled Ramey, now 67. "I went to this farm and we're meeting in a barn and when I get there, I'm the only black that's in the bunch." But his nervousness faded as the conversation focused on the PCBs.
EHN: How did you react when you first discovered the spill?
Willie Ramey: What we did was we simply got in the car and starting riding. It [the oil] was on the highway all the way from Centerville on US 58 almost up to Warrenton…. We did not know what it was and I told them that whatever it was, it was deliberately put there and it wasn't gas and it wasn't oil… It was a real greasy fluid that was lying on the side of the highway… It stayed there, nobody was doing anything about it.
EHN: What took place at those early meetings in Afton?
WR: We decided that we needed to fight because if we didn't, Warren County is predominantly black, is toe-to-the-rule, the educational level of the people is not that high, we are number 100 in per capita income, so we were an ideal place for anyone to put a waste dump in our county. If someone didn't speak up, then it was going to be automatic…So we decided that we had to start speaking up.
EHN: You were one of the few African-Americans involved at the beginning. Why do you think the larger black community did not become active in the protest early on, and what changed that?
WR: I think it had a lot to do with knowledge of what it was. I did not know what it was. But as soon as I found out what it was, and what the implications of the whole spill was … somebody had to step it up and say, "We've got to do something about it." We had probably 25 people at our church [who were involved] and I asked them to ask other people, and I got into it with several other ministers in the county … The whole idea was to mobilize the county against PCBs and to have it removed from the side of the highway… So it took the citizenry of the county to make that happen. All of the ministers from both races were asked to ask their members to come together… At the meeting at the courthouse in January , we had enough people that we ran 700 some people in the yard, on the outside. The courthouse square, that was full as well.
"In my opinion, race never came up. It wasn't important… It was more important to fight against the power of the state. It didn't make a difference what you looked like, you were gonna die from the contaminants they were putting in the county." -The Rev. Willie T. Ramey
I think the rallying call came when I made the statement, "What was the state going to do? If we laid down in the road in front of the bulldozers and the trucks, what were they going to do? If they were going to just use that heavy equipment and push us out of the way, run over the top of us? What were they going to do?" I'm just a firm believer that injustice anywhere is the same as injustice everywhere. And if we didn't stand up and fight for ourselves – we were poor, not highly educated – but at the same time we were human, and we just could not sit still and lay down and play dead and let people come in and make our county a waste site.
EHN: Did the different racial groups have any difficulties in learning to communicate and work together?
WR: In my opinion, race never came up. It wasn't important… It was more important to fight against the power of the state. It didn't make a difference what you looked like, you were gonna die from the contaminants they were putting in the county.
EHN: Did you see the protest as a spiritual issue?
WR: Everything that we do in life is spiritual and political. You cannot separate the two. As Jesus said, "If you have done it unto the least of our society, you have done it unto me." In our society the rich is always doing something to stay rich, but when it does, it's going to have a negative impact on those that are less fortunate.
EHN: In the end, the state ended up burying Warren County's contaminated soil in the Afton landfill despite the protest. What did the community feel was gained by its efforts?
WR: Whatever the original intent was, we only ended up with our PCB that was put on the roadside in our county. It has not been the PCB that was trucked in from throughout the state, but it was only the PCB that was saturated in our county. And we didn't even want that. We wanted it to be taken away. But if we hadn't stood up, if we hadn't fought, then we would have been made a county where they would bring contaminated waste from other places as well.
EHN: What message do you have for other communities facing environmental injustice today?
WR: I'm a firm believer that the arc of the moral universe points toward justice… And if you don't fight for the rights of people, then those in power will push whatever their agenda is on the powerless. But we should never forget that the voice of the people is mightier than money, mightier than influence as well. People have to stand up for what is right.
A decade after the protests, the landfill had begun to leak. The contaminated soil was dug up, and the PCBs were removed and incinerated. Although the site was declared detoxified in 2004, it remains fenced off today.
While Ferruccio and Ramey have moved on to other pursuits, the two remain friends and reminisce when they run into each other. "We have these memories that are spots in time that we share together," Ferruccio said, adding "we will never be done with protecting the environment."
"Birth of the Movement" is the ninth installment of our Pollution, Poverty, and People of Color series.