There are no invisible barriers, no protective borders that stop contaminated water and air traveling from poorer, predominately Black communities to more affluent, largely white towns and neighborhoods.
What happens in communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by polluters that discharge chemicals into waterways, spray them on the ground or emit them through smokestacks into the air, should sound the alarm for what’s to come for the larger region, said La’Meshia Whittington, a professor in Meredith College’s division of sociology, deputy director for Advance Carolina and campaigns director for the North Carolina Black Alliance.
Whittington was among a handful of panelists who spoke Sunday during a forum hosted at the University of North Carolina Wilmington by the People of Scientific and Equitable Achievement, or P.O.S.E.A., a student-led initiative to support inclusion, diversity and equity in the sciences. The organization was formed last year by students Ashantee Pickett and Makayla Oneil and sponsored by UNCW’s Center for Marine Science and MarineQuest, a marine science outreach program.
The public event, hosted in person and online, tackled issues of environmental justice and water quality in an area where drinking water sources have been plagued by industrial discharges of chemical compounds known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, hog lagoon and coal ash spills, and runoff from large animal feeding operations.
“You should be guaranteed affordable, safe water,” said Roger Shew, a geologist and earth and ocean sciences lecturer at UNCW. “It’s a fundamental, given right. The government has an obligation to protect our waters. Unfortunately, that’s not enough, as you know.”
Shew and other panelists discussed the history of how government, driven by economics, has worked on the side of industry as opposed to the people.
It’s a history, Whittington explained, of the institution of slavery, beginning with enslaved Africans forced to work plantations that phased into corporations that set up shop in predominately Black communities, paid low wages, and were allowed to discharge pollutants on the ground and into the waters and air within these communities.
Black communities that thrived were targeted, she said, through Jim Crow legislation.
Such is evidenced in places like Warren County, a rural, poor and largely Black county in the northeastern Piedmont region of the state, that, after its residents in 1982 protested the dumping of thousands of truckloads of soil contaminated with toxic PCBs within the county, gained national attention and became the birthplace of the environmental justice movement.
Just across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington sits another predominately Black community where, for decades, a thick, tar-like substance called creosote was stored in unlined ponds.
The former Kerr-McGee wood treatment plant, now a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, is just one instance of industrial pollution within the 14-square-mile town of Navassa.
There are also brownfield sites within the town, which has a population of about 2,100 to 2,200 residents, about 70% of whom are Black, according Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis.
Willis said he watched creosote bubble up from Sturgeon Creek as a North Carolina Department of Transportation crew worked in 2002 to replace the bridge that connects the town to neighboring Leland.
He talked about Navassa’s history and the town’s ties to the Gullah Geechee, descendants of West Africans enslaved on rice and indigo plantations along the south Atlantic Coast.
The land on which the former creosote plant was located was a rice plantation.
“Right now, it’s about, I’d probably say, halfway through,” Willis said of the EPA’s process to remediate the Superfund site.
Further up the Cape Fear River from Navassa, rural, poor, largely nonwhite communities have been dealing with a different type of industry – concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
CAFOs are large-scale industrial agricultural facilities that raise animals for meat, eggs or milk.
Larry Cahoon, UNCW professor of biology and marine biology and advocacy committee chair of Cape Fear River Watch’s board of directors, shared the history of how these large animal feeding operations landed in disadvantaged communities.
It’s a story that goes back to the 1930s, when tobacco was the state’s golden crop and the federal government established allotments in an effort to raise the price of tobacco.
County-level boards got to determine which farmers received an allotment.
“Which tobacco farmers do you think got allotments and which tobacco farmers did not?” Cahoon asked the audience. “Black tobacco farmers, and there had been some, were shut out across the board, and so the opportunity to make a lot of money was systemically denied to Black farmers.”
In the mid-2000s, as tobacco was being phased out, the farmers who had government allotments were given dibs on the burgeoning swine industry in North Carolina, he said.
Black farmers, once again, were kept out of the most lucrative farming, Cahoon said.
“That’s systemic racism at work,” he said.
CAFOs are disproportionately in communities with higher percentages of people of color and low-income residents. These large animal feeding operations are known to pollute ground and surface water and reduce air quality.
More than two decades ago, Cahoon and a colleague were hired to lend their expertise to Waterkeeper Alliance, which filed a civil suit against pork giant Smithfield Foods.
The lawsuit ultimately resulted in what is referred to as the Smithfield Agreement, a 2000 settlement between the company and the state attorney general where Smithfield and its subsidiaries agreed to pay up to $2 million each year for 25 years.
The money is placed into an account and distributed through the state’s Environmental Enhancement Grant, or EEG, Program to projects designed to enhance the environment.
Last fall, Cahoon and UNCW research professor Michael Mallin received an EEG of more than $90,000 to study water quality of wet detention ponds.
“The waters of the state actually belong to the people of the state,” he said. “Not a private corporation. Not the government. The government is supposed to act as stewards of those resources. They were the ones who are supposed to make sure our waters are fishable, swimmable and drinkable, and when they’re not that means the government hasn’t done its job.”
He said that government should be accountable for ensuring industries keep their waste from intruding on the properties and in the bodies of private residents.
“The fights that we’re fighting here involve the use of other people’s properties and bodies for waste and disposal,” Cahoon said. “I think what we need to do is come back to the notion that you keep your stuff on your property and don’t let it come off.””
Sunday’s forum was the third hosted by P.O.S.E.A.