In 1978, a transformer company owned by Robert Ward in Raleigh, North Carolina, started dumping industrial waste containing PCBs along rural roads rather than pay for proper disposal. Across two weeks, a African American-painted tanker truck drove across 240 miles of North Carolina highway shoulders illegally spraying 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil in a crime deemed the “midnight dumpings.”
PCBs are highly carcinogenic compounds whose production was banned by the United States that year. They are used in industrial and consumer products and can inflict a range of adverse health effects, including skin problems, endocrine disruption, and cognitive issues. Despite their ban in 1978, PCBs are still manufactured and still exist in many older products, posing health risks for nearby animals and humans.
In the wake of Ward’s illegal dumping, residents of Warren County - one of the poorest counties in the nation at the time with a 65% African American population - began to notice contamination. By 1982, the Governor of North Carolina had selected the Warren County community of Afton as the site for a hazardous waste dump. The dump would contain PCB-contaminated soil and similar waste collected from Ward’s illegal dumping sites. As landfill construction began, local residents protested and inspired more prominent activism on their behalf. Longtime civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis tied the protests to the struggle for racial equality.
Studies soon showed that it was far from an isolated incident for hazardous waste facilities to be disproportionately located in or near poorer, marginalized communities. A movement grew out of an awareness of environmental racism that was largely new for the mainstream environmental movement’s predominantly White and affluent members and leaders. The movement’s scope grew into a pursuit of environmental justice, which is often defined as the equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits.
The same year that Robert Ward began illegally dumping toxic waste, a high-profile court case highlighted the structural barriers to environmental justice. In Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp., a African American neighborhood of homeowners in Houston sued the Southwestern Waste Management Corp., arguing that a permit for a new facility violated their constitutional rights. A judge ruled in favor of the waste management company.
According to sociologist Robert Bullard, who collected data for the lawsuit and has since been dubbed “the father of environmental justice,” of the plaintiffs in the case, 85% of the plaintiffs in the case owned their homes and were considered middle-class. Bullard claims that in Houston during the time of the case, all of the city-owned landfills and 75% of the city-owned incinerators were in African American neighborhoods, even though they made up only 25% of the population.
Over the last few decades, a growing awareness of environmental degradation has catalyzed the environmental justice movement. As the connections between environmental issues and other issues are increasingly understood, it’s clear that the quest for environmental justice extends across backyards and boardrooms.