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EPA launches new office for environmental justice and civil rights in Warren County


Polk Place, pictured on Sept. 1, 2022. 

On Saturday, Sept. 24, United States Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights in Warren County, North Carolina.

The announcement came during the 40th anniversary of the 1982 protests that began the environmental justice movement. 

In September of that year, residents in Warren County challenged the state government's implementation of a polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) landfill in the county. PCB is a toxic chemical that was commonly manufactured for electrical equipment until it was banned in 1979.

Taylor Gillespie, a press officer for the EPA,  said the new office will help to ensure that environmental justice remains a top priority for the EPA despite changing presidents or administrators. One of the goals of the office is to support affected communities by distributing $3 billion for environmental grants. 

Rev. Bill Kearney leads Warren County’s Environmental Action Team, an organization that works to commemorate the legacy of environmental justice in Warren County. 

He said he hopes to see financial reparations for the losses experienced by the community. In 2002, $18 million was used to remediate and clean the landfill site, but Kearney said citizens didn’t feel its benefit.

“Had all that money been spent on education, housing, job opportunities in Warren County, maybe we wouldn’t be a Tier 1 county now,” he said. 

North Carolina has a tier system to evaluate the economic and development state of its counties. The 40 counties that are struggling the most are designated as Tier 1. 

Kearney said, while people are excited about the announcement, the real test will be what the EPA does next. He wants to see the citizens of Warren County engaged in decision-making and for the EPA to prioritize the needs of the people. 

“I like the idea of now funding people, coming to our community not to work around us but to engage us in the work,” he said. 

Tare Davis, chair of the Board of Commissioners in Warren County, said ideally, they will form a committee in Warren County to work with the EPA's new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights.  

Davis said the county needs to know how the landfill impacted the health of its citizens and their environment. Studies done by the EPA indicate that PCBs can cause cancer, immunosuppression, deficits in neurological development and other dangerous outcomes. 

Warren County was a predominantly Black and low-income community during the protests. During his speech at the announcement on Sept. 24, Regan said the citizens felt they were targeted based on their race and income, since they did not appear to have the political or economic resources to fight back.

Despite these assumptions, hundreds of citizens participated in protests that lasted for six weeks and drew media attention from all over the country.

The landfill was placed in Warren County in spite of community outrage, and was ultimately declared clean in 2004 after over 20 years of continued efforts by the community. Their act of resistance sparked the national environmental justice movement and inspired underserved groups all over the country to fight against pollution in their communities.

When announcing the new office, Regan applauded the efforts of the 1982 protesters, who persevered even when the system worked against them.

“What this community lacked in political power, they made up for in courage,” he said at the event.

Davis also said he wants the EPA to provide funding to correct past mistakes. 

Davis said the landfill sat on 19 acres of land that is now unused, and the EPA should help the county test and begin to develop this land into something new.

There is a lot of work to be done to remedy the effects that PCBs had on the people of Warren County, he added. He said it was important that the federal government came to Warren County to acknowledge the damage done to the community and address the efforts of the 1982 protesters. 

“To finally see the results of their hard work, it really meant something,” he said.

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