Source: Earthkeeping: "Toxic Racism"
In this video segment adapted from Earthkeeping: “Toxic Racism,” learn about the beginning of the environmental justice movement. Meet various experts and leaders who describe the issues of environmental racism and justice, and learn about the watershed event—the controversy over the location of a toxic landfill in Warren County, North Carolina—that brought the issues to national attention in the early 1980s. See footage of the residents protesting the transport of PCB-contaminated soil to their community, and hear about how the incident triggered further investigations into the relationship between communities of color and toxins.
The environmental justice movement began in response to the unbalanced burden of environmental hazards placed on minority and low-income communities. For example, landfills and polluting industries are disproportionately located in communities that are predominately nonwhite; farm workers, the majority of whom are people of color, are exposed to high levels of pesticides; and low-income populations are at particularly high risk from lead poisoning from deteriorating lead paint in their homes. Environmental justice focuses on the fair treatment of people, regardless of race or income, and the equitable distribution and eradication of such environmental burdens.
The term environmental racism refers to racial discrimination in environmental policymaking and the disproportionate exposure of minorities to environmental hazards. The ideas of environmental racism and justice first gained national attention during the controversy surrounding a PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. At that time, the landfill was constructed to hold approximately 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil that was the result of illegal oil dumping along highway shoulders. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are part of a family of chemicals that were used in many industrial and commercial application and products, such as in hydraulic and electrical equipment, insulation, paints, and plastics. PCBs are toxic; exposure can lead to skin problems and cancer and can affect immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. In addition, PCBs are persistent organic pollutants, meaning that they do not easily break down and can remain in the environment for a long time. The chemicals enter the air, water, or soil and can accumulate up the food chain as they pass from contaminated organisms to the consumers who eat them. Humans are exposed to PCBs by breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, or eating contaminated food. Environmental and health concerns led to a ban on PCB production in the United States in 1979.
Given the known toxicity of PCBs, residents of Warren County were justifiably concerned about the landfill. No community wants to be exposed to toxic waste, but the people of Warren County felt that the location of the site was unfairly chosen. Environmentally, the location did not make sense because the water table was located close to the surface and many residents got their drinking water from wells; the landfill could easily contaminate the community's drinking water with PCBs. Residents felt the site must have been chosen for political reasons as it was located in a predominately African American community in one of the poorest counties in the state. The injustice mobilized the community to fight for their environmental rights, and the environmental justice movement was born.
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