Warren County sites and university campuses will be settings for a series of events next month to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1982 PCB protests which are now recognized as the beginning of the environmental justice movement.
The events are made possible through a collaboration between the Warren County Environmental Action Team, Warren County Community Center, Warren County Branch of the NAACP, Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, along with a number of other groups and organizations.
More than 350 people participated in the 2012 commemoration of the 30th anniversary of protests against the PCB landfill built in the Afton area in 1982.
Construction of the landfill followed years of public outcry, resistance and legal actions that came after transformer oil contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was illegally sprayed in Warren and 13 other counties in 1978.
The state of North Carolina and the federal Environmental Protection Agency chose the poor, rural and mostly minority Warren County for the PCB landfill, which they claimed was safe and would not leak.
In 1982, as trucks began hauling in 10,000 loads of contaminated soil from more than 200 miles of North Carolina roadways, protestors from Warren County, supports of their cause and civil rights activists marched and lay down in front of the trucks. More than 500 arrests were made during about a six-week period, and what is now known as the environmental justice movement was born.
Activities that have already taken place in preparation for the September commemoration events have highlighted how community residents of various racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds came together in unity in the effort to stop the PCB landfill.
A growing partnership
The team that came together to plan the 40th anniversary commemoration originally included representatives from the Wilson Library and the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, the Warren County Branch of the NAACP, the Warren County Community Center, former Congresswoman Eva Clayton, Warren County Manager Vincent Jones and other representatives of county government and departments, the local faith community, local citizens and others involved with the 2012 observance, including Wayne Moseley, now retired from Living Arts College, and Jenny LaBalme, a journalist and photographer who took photographs here in 1982 while a student at Duke University.
The list of those who have become involved with or expressed interest in the commemoration, or are providing support, has now grown to include representatives of the UNC Gillings School of Global Health, the University of Mississippi, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Friends of the Earth, the North Carolina Conservation Network, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Shaw University, Appalachian State University, Maria Parham Health, the Living and Learning Youth Center, Warren County Schools, the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention, the North Carolina Black Alliance, NC WARN, the business community and additional representatives of the faith community.
Among the more recent additions are the following:
• Dr. Phaedra C. Pezzullo, associate professor, Department of Communication in the College of Media Communication & Information, co-director, Center for Creative Climate Communication & Behavior Change, Inside the Greenhouse, and Just Transition Collaborative, University of Colorado, Boulder
• Pavithra Vasudevan, assistant professor, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
• John Rash & Melanie Ho, Southern Documentary Project, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, The University of Mississippi
• Breanna Byrd, Ph. D. student, Feminist Studies graduate intern, African American Resource & Culture Center, University of California, Santa Cruz.
The growing list of supporters reflects the number of groups and individuals who have reached out to Bill Kearney, coordinator of the Warren County Environmental Action Team, to recognize the local community’s place in history. However, Kearney describes himself as more of a facilitator who is grateful for the widespread interest.
“I am grateful, humbled and appreciative,” he said.
Sept. 17 commemoration
Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church, at 224 Parktown Road, Warrenton (Afton community) will be the setting for commemoration events on Saturday, Sept. 17.
The church, especially its Health Ministry, Warren Ministries United, additional faith leaders and others in the community are working with the Warren County Environmental Action Team and its partners to make the event possible,
The commemoration will begin with registration and check-in at 8 a.m., followed by a brief ceremony at 8:45 a.m.
The morning ceremony will include Passing the Torch, a time to reflect on the past and future of environmental justice.
“It symbolizes passing the torch from the people who participated in the protests 40 years ago to the next generation who will take on the work,” Kearney said.
Through a collaborative effort, event organizers are reaching out to universities across North Carolina, especially HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to invite students and faculty who engage in environmental science to receive the symbolic torch.
The speaker for morning events will be Edgardo Colón-Emeric.
Beginning at about 9:30 a.m., students will lead those attending in a commemorative walk to the Afton Landfill. Kearney said that event organizers hope that the walkers will engage in chants and songs used in the PCB protests. Participants will also carry a banner.
Walkers will continue down Limer Town Road until it meets Ervin Kearney Road. At that point, ministers will lead participants in a time of prayer for healing and reconciliation, and commitment to work as stewards of God’s environment, Kearney said.
The group will then return to Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church. Lunch and a time of reflection will begin at 11:30 a.m. A proclamation will recognize Warren County’s place in history and local efforts to move forward as stewards of the environment and local health. Representatives of a number of organizations will discuss their work to help the community.
Kearney said that the afternoon discussion is important not only because it will help people understand Warren County’s role in the environmental justice movement, but also will provide encouragement that the type of energy that brought people together in 1982 can also be harnessed to address the needs of the community today.
The commemoration will close with a prayer and benediction at 2 p.m.
The Environmental Action Team and its partners see the Sept. 17 commemoration as not only a day to reflect on the past, but to consider the community’s future.
“By the end of the day, we want to say, ‘Now, what’s next?’” Kearney said.
Part of that future will include several events that are already on the calendar for later in September:
• Sept. 18, 2-4 p.m.: Community Worship Service at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church
• Sept. 20, 5-8 p.m.: Downtown Warrenton and Warren County Jail Museum Environmental Justice Tour
• Sept. 24. 6:30 p.m.: Back Together Again, NAACP Warren County Branch Banquet
The Environmental Action Team is also looking further into the future to teach today’s youth and future generations about Warren County’s history. These could include developing a nature center in the county that would allow universities to offer classes here, building a curriculum to focus on Warren County’s history and natural resources, and other ideas to come.
The Environmental Action Team hopes that this year’s activities and those of the future will inspire a feeling of pride in the county and its people who proved their resilience during the time of the PCB protests and are moving to a future of thriving.
Kearney said that the process will include talking more about the community’s strengths, like the willingness of people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and ages to come together for a common goal in 1982.
“We want to help change the image of the county as poor, nothing ever happens here,” Kearney said. “We are rich in our resources.”