County: North Carolina and the Continuing Struggle for Environmental Justice – April 20, 2023
April 11, 2023
Hidden by the obscurity of night, trucks belonging to the Ward Transformer Company deliberately released toxic chemicals called PCBs along 250 miles of North Carolina roadways. Once uncovered, the waste had to be collected and contained. A landfill was to be placed in Warren County. For generations, the right for all people to have access to clean air and clean water has been a component of the struggle for civil rights all over the world. It was a small community in rural North Carolina that set the tone, raised the alarm, and provided the example to ignite what is now coined as the “environmental justice movement.” On Thursday, April 20, at 7 p.m., the NC Museum of History will host a panel discussion of environmental leaders and activists, reflecting on NC’s role in the origins of the environmental justice movement by way of the 1982 PCB protests in Warren County and efforts to address the ongoing issues regarding environmental justice nationwide.
Michael Regan currently serves as the 16th administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the first Black man and second person of color to lead the US EPA. Prior to his nomination as EPA administrator, Regan served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). As secretary, he spearheaded the development and implementation of North Carolina’s seminal plan to address climate change and transition the state to a clean energy economy. Under his leadership, the department secured the largest coal ash cleanup in United States history. He led complex negotiations regarding the cleanup of the Cape Fear River, which had been contaminated for years by the toxic chemicals per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS). In addition, he established North Carolina’s first-of-its-kind Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory board to better align social inequities, environmental protection, and community empowerment.
Dr. Ben Chavis was among the more than 500 people arrested for taking part in the nonviolent protests in Warren County. While in the Warren County jail, he coined the term “environmental racism.” Chavis went on to serve as executive director and CEO of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, and it was under his leadership that the organization issued its landmark 1987 report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”
Eva Clayton has been an advocate in North Carolina for more than half a century. At the time of the dumping in Warren County, Clayton was chair of Warren County’s Board of Commissioners and worked to get funding and resources for the rural county. In 1992 she was elected to the US Congress and became the first Black woman to represent North Carolina in Congress. During her term in Congress, she advocated for funding to detoxify the contaminated site.
Rev. Bill Kearney was born and raised in Warren County. He serves as an associate minister and faith and health ministry coordinator at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church. In 2012 Kearney organized the Warren County Environmental Action Team (EAT), which maintains Warren County’s legacy of activism and community organizing as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement. He continues to live in Warren County and is engaged with other leaders to continue their advocacy work.
Vernice Miller-Travis was a researcher working for the civil rights division of the United Church of Christ in the New York City headquarters during the Warrant County protests. She continued to research environmental injustice and environmental racism and in 1987 helped to publish a report by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice called “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States.” She also attended the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and helped to adopt the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice.