History: Warren County, NC

The Beginning of the Environmental Justice Movement

Photo courtesy of Robert Bullard, Environmental Justice Resource Center

The environmental justice movement began in Warren County, North Carolina. In 1973, the Ward Transformers Company dumped 31,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) on the side of roadways in 14 NC counties. The State of North Carolina devised a plan to build a landfill and deposit the contaminated soil in the landfill.

The site of the landfill was Shocco, a rural town in Warren County that was 75% African American, with neither a mayor nor a city council. Warren County had the highest majority of African Americans and out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, it was ranked 97th in GDP.

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

Residents feared that their groundwater would be contaminated by PCB, so local leaders including Ken Feruccio, Reverend Luther Brown, Reverend Leon White, and Dollie Burwell organized protests against the construction of the landfill. Their protests attracted the support of civil rights groups across the nation and turned national attention on the issue of institutionalized environmental racism.

After three lawsuits, multiple public hearings, and a few scientific studies, Warren County commissioners finally reached a compromise with the state government in 1982. In addition, Governor Hunt promised that the landfill would not expand and that Warren County would not become a waste county.

However, some residents were not satisfied. In 1983, water was discovered under the landfill, revealing a contamination crisis in Warren County. And finally, in 2003, the state started a program to actively destroy the PCB.

The Warren County case revealed a type of racism that had been previously unaddressed and provided a stage on which previously disempowered groups, namely low-income, minority, and rural communities, could voice their concerns. It served as a model for later fights against environmental injustice. As a result, environmental injustice movements are considered to be under the civil rights umbrella rather than that of environmentalism, which is mainly led by middle-class whites.