In 1973, the state of North Carolina made plans to dump 31,000 gallons of the highly-carcinogenic compound polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in a landfill built in Shocco, a rural town in the northeastern part of the state. Shocco’s residents — 75 percent of whom were African American — immediately objected to the plan, fearing that the chemical would seep into their groundwater and contaminate their soil.
Local leaders organized protests, laying down in front of dump trucks to prevent them from entering the town. The protests drew national attention, highlighting the disparate rate at which communities of color bear the brunt of industrial pollution and kicking off what is known as the modern environmental justice movement.
Now, nearly half a century after trucks laden with PCBs rolled into Shocco, the state of North Carolina is hoping to grapple with its long history of environmental injustices with the formation of an Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, which will advise the state’s Department of Environmental Quality on issues related to environmental justice.
“I am excited to kick off a very important endeavor,” North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan told ThinkProgress via an emailed statement. “One that we hope will change the way North Carolina strategically approaches and integrates environmental protection and social justice to ensure no North Carolinian is overlooked or left behind as we tackle the environmental challenges of the day.”
The board, which is comprised of 16 environmental justice and public health experts from across the state, is charged with assisting the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on “achieving the fair and equal treatment and meaningful involvement of North Carolinians regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
The board’s charter requires it to meet at least four times a year. It also requires that the board’s members represent a range of both professions (there’s a requirement for at least one member to have a doctorate in either economy, public health, sociology, or environmental science) and ethnicities (two members must be Native American tribal representatives, for instance).
Environmental justice issues are pervasive in America, touching progressive areas like Los Angeles as much as typically conservative areas like Oklahoma. But North Carolina, perhaps more than any other place, has a difficult path ahead when it comes to rectifying injustices of the past.
For decades, industry — particularly pork processors and electric utilities — have wielded immense power at both the legislative and executive level, leading to lax enforcement of environmental regulations and legislation aimed at protecting polluters against community lawsuits.
In Eastern North Carolina, where much of the state’s hog production takes place, pigs actually outnumber people. Large concentrated animal feeding operations — or CAFOs — cram thousands of pigs into small spaces, resulting in millions of tons of manure. CAFOs deal with that waste by spraying it onto fields or storing it in open-air pits, known euphemistically as lagoons. But the manure doesn’t just stay in fields or in the lagoons — it permeates the air, choking the predominantly poor communities of color around which the CAFOs are sited.
“Most people living in rural America right now are feeling they have to negotiate with the air,” Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and a member of the environmental justice advisory board, told ThinkProgress. “I get up in the morning, I crack my door open just a little to see if it stinks outside. When the odor is there, you don’t want to be outside.”
But it’s not just CAFOs impacting rural North Carolinians. In some parts of the state, residents have been forced to drink bottled water for more than 1,000 days, following notices from state officials in 2015 warning that their well water showed high levels of some coal ash elements, including hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen.
But as with CAFOs, politicians in North Carolina have historically been loathe to address the coal ash problem in a way that satisfies residents. The state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, holds considerable political power in the state through donations to politicians, and largely enjoys a state legislature sympathetic to industry concerns.
“We have been asking for nearly two decades that they make these dirty industries clean up,” Muhammad said of environmental justice activists’ demands of the state legislature and environmental regulators. “Our legislators need to get some backbone. Justice for all is what we want.”
Muhammad says that her main priority while serving on the advisory board will be working to hold polluters like hog producers and Duke Energy responsible for their waste. But it will also be about holding state officials accountable for their promises — under the new executive leadership of Gov. Roy Cooper (D) officials have begun to re-prioritize environmental issues, like chemical contamination, throughout the state.
According to the advisory board’s charter, the board’s focus is largely dependent on the issues that the secretary feels are important enough to refer to the committee. Moreover, while the committee charter says that it is meant to exist for an “indefinite” period of time, it also gives the secretary the right to dissolve the board — meaning that the board’s very existence could hang on the political whims of the state and who is in charge of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality at any given time.
“If in fact they really want an advisory board that is going to give honest consideration to communities and be listened to and their advice be followed, I think it can be a good thing,” Muhammad said. “If this council is just going to be something for show, then I think that’s going to be another whole issue.”