Over six tense weeks in the fall of 1982, 550 people were arrested in Warren County, some of them after lying in front of dump trucks loaded with PCB-laden soil bound for a landfill built by the State of North Carolina. With the full support, encouragement even, of then-Gov. Jim Hunt, the state had created the landfill in a largely Black neighborhood to dispose of PCBs, a known carcinogen, from the Ward Transformer site in Raleigh.
Those mass acts of civil disobedience launched the modern environmental justice movement. Yet it’s taken 36 years for a governor and an environmental secretary to create an advisory board to address the persistent problem of environmental injustice in North Carolina.
Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan announced the membership of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board today. Its 16 members, inclusive of diverse racial, ethnic, gender and socio-economic backgrounds, plans to meet quarterly. Its charge is to advise Regan and DEQ on how to ensure all North Carolinians can enjoy clean air, water and land in their neighborhoods.
Since appointed by Gov. Cooper, Regan said his priority “has always been same — to redefine the agency’s purpose. It’s no secret that I wasn’t satisified with the mission we inherited. It downplayed the protection of people and no, it did not reflect my vision and the governor’s vision of inclusivity.”
Regan said the board reflects the agency’s new mission. “We are providing science-based environmental stewardship for the health and prosperity of all North Carolinians. Environmental fairness and equity for all is not just a soundbite, a feel-good exercise. It’s an achievable goal for all parts of our state. But we have some work to do.”
Regan explicitly mentioned coal ash, animal feeding operations, GenX and landfills as among the “very tough issues” affecting underserved communities.
However, no one on the board is from the communities affected by coal ash. Deborah Graham and Amy Brown, who live within a half-mile of coal ash ponds, said they were disappointed in the omission.
“How can you be our voice when you haven’t felt our pain?” Brown said. “Why wouldn’t you choose a real coal ash neighbor?”
Graham and Brown likened this board to the Science Advisory Board, which recently met, inexplicably, in Newton to discuss hexavalent chromium, a component of coal ash. In part, because Newton is not an affected coal ash community, few people attended the meeting and no one spoke publicly.
“We could have gotten people out,” Graham said. “Apparently our voice is not being heard.”
The environmental justice issues facing North Carolina range from the mountains to the coast: wood pellet plants, Superfund sites, the proposed fumigation facility that would emit highly toxic methyl bromide in Delco; the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in eastern North Carolina and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which was just announced for the Piedmont.
The board’s membership includes academics, such as chairperson James Johnson Jr., a UNC professor who studies sustainable communities, as well as scientists, including Marian Johnson-Thompson, a cancer researcher, microbiologist and educator.
Nonprofits also are well-represented. Jamie Cole is the Environmental Justice, Air, and Materials policy manager at the NC Conservation Network. Naeema Muhammad of the NC Environmental Justice Network is a driving force behind the protection of neighbors of industrialized hog farms.
Vice-Chairperson Marian Johnson-Thompson said she hoped the board will “serve as a model for other states’ approaches to addressing environmental justice.”
“We’re put here on this earth to live and to take care of it,” said board member Jeff Anstead of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian tribe. “That’s our job.”
Chairperson James Johnson Jr., UNC professor, Chapel Hill
Vice-Chairperson Marian Johnson-Thompson, cancer researcher and educator, Durham
Danelle Lobdell, an epidemiologist from Chapel Hill
Naeema Muhammed, of the NC Environmental Justice Network, Rocky Mount
Jamie Cole, of the NC Conservation Network, Raleigh
Susan Jakes, an NC State researcher of childhood obesity, Raleigh
Randee Haven O’Donnell, science teacher and alderwoman, Carrboro
Angela Esteva, an executive at akta Pharmaceutical Development, Cary
Jeff Anstead, Environmental Justice Committee Chair of NC Indian Affairs Commission, Warrenton
Joseph Owle, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee
The Rev. Rodney Sadler Jr., professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte
William Barber III, UNC environmental law student, Durham
Marilyn Marsh-Robinson, of the Environmental Defense Fund, Knightdale
Mercedes Hernandez-Pelletier, Child and Family Health Manager, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project
Veronica Carter, board of directors, NC Coastal Federation, Leland
Yu Yang, senior engineer, ?Höganäs Environment Solutions, Cary