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PCB Contamination in Warren County, USA


Warren County was one of the first cases of environmental justice in the United States and is considered an emblematic struggle.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:PCB Contamination in Warren County, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:North Carolina
Location of conflict:Warren County
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Chemical industries
Specific commodities:Industrial waste
Polychlorinated Biphenyls
Chemical products
Project Details and Actors
Project details

40,000 cubic yards of PCB contaminated soil

Project area:61
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:15,000-20,000
Start of the conflict:1973
End of the conflict:12/2003
Company names or state enterprises:Ward Transformers Company from United States of America
Relevant government actors:State of North Carolina, Warren County, US Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Tied to Civil Rights movement, most protests were directed by social justice organizations and churches
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Neighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Development of alternative proposals
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other Health impacts
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Application of existing regulations
Proposal and development of alternatives:Proposed solutions were to detoxify the landfill by cleaning it up and removing the hazardous materials from the soil and groundwater
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The soil was put back in a football-size pit, re-covered to form a mound, graded, and seeded with grass. However, detoxifying the landfill does not bring the community back to its pre-1982 PCB-free environmental condition. Soil still containing small PCBs levels is buried at least 15 feet below the surface in the dump.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Cutter, Susan L. "Race, class and environmental justice." Progress in Human Geography 19 (1995): 111-111.

Pavithra Vasudevan (2012): Performance and Proximity: Revisiting environmental justice in Warren County, North Carolina, Performance Research: A Journal o the Performing Arts, 17:4, 18-26
[click to view]

Bullard, Robert Doyle. Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Vol. 3. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

Geiser, Ken, and Gerry Waneck. "PCBs and Warren County." Science for the People 15.4 (1983): 13-17.

McGurty, Eileen. Transforming environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, and the origins of environmental justice. Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Environmental Injustice in North Caroline
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Learn North Carolina. REAL PEOPLE — REAL STORIES. Seeking Environmental Justice. Afton, NC (Warren County)
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[1] Environmental Racism PCB Landfill Finally Remedied But No Reparations for Residents, Robert D. Bullard
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Image from Ricky Stillely Photography and the NC Department of Cultural Resources.
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Political Activists protest a landfill in Warren County created to store PCBs collected from roadsides where they were illegally dumped.
[click to view]

This color pictorial history by Mac Owen Shaffer is of the events leading up to and including the Warren County, North Carolina PCB protests that lasted for six weeks in the Fall of 1982. This event is known for launching the Environmental Justice Movement
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Protestors lying in front of dump trucks taking soil contaminated with PCB to the landfill. Source: Dave Brenner
[click to view]

This video is of Dr. Joel Hirshorn, detoxification expert, speaking about the Warren County, NC PCB landfill on the grounds of the state capital building in the fall of 1997. Hirshorn was one of the independent scientists working to help clean up the site
[click to view]

Other comments:The case has been declared solved.
This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan
Meta information
Contributor:Alejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update18/08/2019
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