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PCB Contamination in Warren County, USA


Description

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

In 1973, Ward Transformers Company dumped 31,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) along more than 220 miles of roadways of 14 counties of the state of North Carolina. PCBs are highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, whose production has been banned by the United States Congress since 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention in 2001. High concentrations of these pollutants have been associated with the development of skin conditions, ocular lesions, lower immune responses and cancer.

The State of North Carolina responded to the dumping of PCBs with the decision to build a landfill to deposit all the contaminated soil. The location chosen for the landfill was Shocco, a rural town in Warren County whose population was 75% African American without mayor or city council. Compared to the state of North Carolina, Warren County was one of the poorest counties (ranked 97 out of the 100 counties in the state, in terms of GDP).

Afraid of the possibility of toxic materials contaminating their groundwater supplies, in 1979 local residents formed Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs to fight the siting and construction of the landfill. Residents held rallies and protests of the landfill. More than 50 people out of 500 protesters were arrested by state highways patrol the first day truckload of contaminated soils started to arrive to the landfill. The protests and arrests (523 people) continued for the next six weeks while the contaminated soil arrived. These protests attracted support from the civil rights movement across the nation and media began to relate this environmental conflict with issues of institutionalized environmental racism. After weeks of protests, North Carolina Governor James Hunt promised to detoxify the landfill whenever possible. Three months after capping the landfill in 1982, gas leakages started to occur and the state proposed to construct a drainage system to remove the contaminated water.

After waiting more than two decades, efforts to detoxify the dump began in June 2001 and lasted until December 2003. The detoxification and neutralization work at the landfill had a total cost of $18 million, paid by state and federal sources.

A private contractor hired by the state dug up and burned 81,500 tons of oil-laced soil in a kiln that reached more than 800-degrees Fahrenheit to remove the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). 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 [1].

Basic Data

NamePCB Contamination in Warren County, USA
CountryUnited States of America
ProvinceNorth Carolina
SiteWarren 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 CommoditiesPolychlorinated Biphenyls
Industrial waste
Chemical products

Project Details and Actors

Project Details40,000 cubic yards of PCB contaminated soil
Project Area (in hectares)61
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population15,000-20,000
Start Date1973
End Date12/2003
Company Names or State EnterprisesWard Transformers Company from United States of America
Relevant government actorsState of North Carolina, Warren County, US Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersTied to Civil Rights movement, most protests were directed by social justice organizations and churches

The Conflict and the Mobilization

Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingNeighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Development of alternative proposals
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches

Impacts

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-economic ImpactsPotential: Loss of landscape/sense of place

Outcome

Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCriminalization of activists
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Repression
Strengthening of participation
Application of existing regulations
Development of AlternativesProposed solutions were to detoxify the landfill by cleaning it up and removing the hazardous materials from the soil and groundwater
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.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 and Materials

References

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

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

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
http://www.academia.edu/1906772/Performance_and_Proximity_Revisiting_environmental_justice_in_Warren_County_North_Carolina

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.

Links

The New York Times, "CAROLINIANS SEE GOVERNOR IN PCB LANDFILL DISPUTE"
http://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/10/us/carolinians-see-governor-in-pcb-landfill-dispute.html

Environmental Injustice in North Caroline
http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_sb211/what-is-environmental-justice/history/

The New York Times, "55 ARRESTED IN PROTEST AT A TOXIC DUMP IN CAROLINA
http://www.nytimes.com/1982/09/16/us/55-arrested-in-protest-at-a-toxic-dump-in-carolina.html

[1] Environmental Racism PCB Landfill Finally Remedied But No Reparations for Residents, Robert D. Bullard
http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/warren%20county%20rdb.htm

Learn North Carolina. REAL PEOPLE — REAL STORIES. Seeking Environmental Justice. Afton, NC (Warren County)
http://www.learnnc.org/lp/media/uploads/2010/12/afton_summary_07-0320_for_web.pdf

Media Links

Protestors lying in front of dump trucks taking soil contaminated with PCB to the landfill. Source: Dave Brenner
http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_sb211/files/2011/04/Warren-Co-photo-by-Jenny-Labalme-for-S.-Butt-300x208.jpg

Image from Ricky Stillely Photography and the NC Department of Cultural Resources.
http://warrencountylove.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/pcb-protests-2-300x200.jpg

Political Activists protest a landfill in Warren County created to store PCBs collected from roadsides where they were illegally dumped.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iCxh0BYjgI

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
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYp2oyzStBI

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
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54YLhNseO9k

Other CommentsThe 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

ContributorAlejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/07/2015