Warren County PCB protestors reflect on historic movement against toxic waste landfill

Elaina Athans Image
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Environmental Justice Movement started in NC
The Environmental Justice Movement started when North Carolina leaders and the EPA wanted to put a toxic landfill in a Black neighborhood in Warren County.

WARREN COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Warren County holds the distinction of being the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement.

Residents took a stand when federal and state leaders tried to build a toxic waste landfill in their backyard.

Dollie Burwell was just 32 years old, had already traveled to Selma, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois to fight social justice when she waged a different kind of war in her hometown community.

"I really think that they underestimated the spirit of the ancestors. I grew up knowing that vulnerable people had to stand together," said Burwell.

The State of North Carolina had designated Warren County to host a hazardous landfill and the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on the move in this predominantly Black community.

Warren County neighbors took a stand when federal and state leaders tried to build a toxic waste landfill in their backyard | Photo Credit: Associated Press

Toxic PCBs had been illegally dumped along hundreds of miles of North Carolina roadways and the pollution spanned 14 counties. The waste needed to be cleaned up.

"It was just the cheapest way to do it, but we felt like it was it was always a violation of our civil rights to do what they did," said Burwell.

She helped organize protests and it sparked the start of the Environmental Justice Movement.

"It was emotional but, I knew that I wasn't afraid," said Burwell.

The group marched nearly every day for six weeks.

Wayne Moseley remembers that very first protest on September 15 1982 and the display of force outside the site.

"We could see about 75 patrolmen in full riot gear - helmets, batons - and we didn't know if they were going to beat us or what," he said.

Dollie Burrell aka the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement

Moseley was one of the first people arrested.

"They thought it was the path of least resistance and little did they realize that they tapped into a hornet's nest. We did not roll over," said Moseley.

Sometimes the gatherings were small, maybe 50 people, and at other times 300-400.

Civil Rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who worked on Dr. Martin Luther King's advance team, joined the efforts.

Congressman Walter Fauntroy left a session in Washington D.C. and flew down to Warren County to attend a protest. He was arrested after kneeling to pray in front of a truck.

"He was so angry, he went back to Washington and the first thing he did was pass legislation to order a Congressional investigation," said Burwell.

That investigation found that there were four hazardous waste landfills under the EPA's jurisdiction in Warren County's area.

North Carolina started a detoxification project and it took nearly two decades after the PCB protests to break ground on the cleanup site.

Today, Reverend Bill Kearney is working towards solutions.

He created the African-American History Collective and also developed the Warren County Environment Action team, which is applying for a federal Justice40 grant to deal with legacy pollution.

"Everyday people birthed a movement, but still don't see the benefit of that sacrifice that it made. So I feel that's my responsibility," said Kearney. "There are opportunities to develop affordable housing, renewable energy, job skills, a true health assessment for our community."

Warren County neighbors took a stand when federal and state leaders tried to build a toxic waste landfill in their backyard | Photo Credit: Associated Press

Burwell ended up being arrested five times during the protests.

She's encouraged by the newly formed North Carolina Environmental Justice Council and immensely proud that her community - with little resources, but great tenacity - made its mark on American history.

"When President Bill Clinton sign the executive order establishing the Office of Environmental Justice, that would not have happened if the people in Warren County did not get arrested," said Burwell.

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