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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.

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

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

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



Learn North Carolina. REAL PEOPLE — REAL STORIES. Seeking Environmental Justice. Afton, NC (Warren County)

[1] Environmental Racism PCB Landfill Finally Remedied But No Reparations for Residents, Robert D. Bullard

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Image from Ricky Stillely Photography and the NC Department of Cultural Resources.

Political Activists protest a landfill in Warren County created to store PCBs collected from roadsides where they were illegally dumped.

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

Protestors lying in front of dump trucks taking soil contaminated with PCB to the landfill. Source: Dave Brenner

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

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