The Birth of a Movement
In September of 1982, Mother Earth was found violated; the toxic, cancer-causing chemical known as PCB had been dumped into her once rich soil. The brutal event also impacted the inhabitants of that land. The biodiversity in Warren County was ravished with one of the most lethal toxins of that time; threatening the life, quality of life, health, and wellbeing of all of those that call Warren County, NC home. The Ward Transformer Co., deliberately targeted this low wealth community of Black citizens and dumped tons of toxic dirt saturated with PCB, having spilled the toxic material some 244 miles from Raleigh, NC to its place of destination Warren County.
Birth Date: 1982
Place of Birth: Afton, Warren County, NC
Mother Name: Earth
Father Name: Environmental Racism
Name: Environmental Justice Community
Without notification, the people of Warren County found their community transformed into a dumpsite. In a moment, the lives of people living in this area were impacted, and the lives of wildlife, marine life, and various fowl and plant life too. The proud members of this community protested this injustice that happened suddenly without warning and consent.
The fight brought about by the citizens in the community of Afton soon revealed a repeat offender was at large, their actions unearthed dirty corporations were releasing toxic and poisonous waste by-products from their production process into low wealth black populated communities all across North Carolina.
The discovery of black communities being used for corporate dumping of toxic waste gave impetus for then seated President Bill Clinton to sign the historic Executive Order, 12898 on Environmental Justice which addressed toxic pollution found in minority, tribal, and low wealth communities. To date, the term Environmental Justice Communities are also known as BIPOC communities; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Research has revealed low wealth and BIPOC communities are located less than 2 miles away from a toxic landfill.
Robert Burns, owner of the New York Trucking Company, had been violating the earth with PCB since 1978. Burns' decision to expand his business to North Carolina and hire his friend Robert Ward Jr. and his two sons Randall and Timothy, owners of Ward Transformer Co., to dispose of toxic cancer-causing agents was his undoing but not before the Ward's had saturated the earth in over thirteen counties across North Carolina, including a portion of Fort Bragg and 211 miles of highway between Raleigh, and Warren County, dumping over 30,000 gallons of liquid PCB during this process; however, Afton received the most egregious amount of the poisonous toxic agent.
Upon discovery, lifetime resident Dollie Burwell gathered a group of women from the Afton community and together organized and galvanized the movement that was seen and heard across this nation, the movement we have all come to call Environmental Justice.
Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement
Dollie Bullock Burwell
Photo Credit: Justin Cook
It was the first time in American history that citizens were jailed for trying to stop a landfill; the community of Afton, located south of Warrenton, was attempting to prevent pollution. The Afton Warren County protest was thought to have been the largest civil disobedience action in the South since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's historic march through Alabama.
Pollution existed before Warren County, and community protesting existed before Afton; however, this grassroots community galvanized effort to protest, resulting in over 500 people being arrested to prevent pollution was a first.
Giving birth to what is known worldwide as Environmental Justice One of several voices leading this fight was Dr. Benjamin Chavis. Upon his arrest and public outcry citing the disproportionate levels of toxic waste being deliberately dumped in black communities, Chavis declared, 'this is racism, Environmental Racism.
Photo Credit: Kyna Uwaeme