Last fall, in a letter to the editor of the Warren Record and in a front page Henderson Daily Dispatch article, I spoke about our intentions to celebrate the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of the groundbreaking fall 1982 PCB movement, but when I met in February with community planners of what became the Environmental Action Team (E.A.T.), I saw immediately that our goals for the celebration were at cross purposes.
For me and others like me, the purpose of the celebration was to acknowledge the vision, courage, and gifts of Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs and their supporters, to share our individual and collective PCB stories, learn from the discussion, and make history a teacher which better prepares us to squarely face future environmental threats such as potential uranium mining in Virginia that endangers Kerr and Gaston Lakes and the drinking water of millions.
My hope was that Warren County citizens would share how they had united and organized themselves as an official body and used the Warren County Courthouse to affirm their public sentiment; how they hired an independent scientist to represent their interests, formulated a four-year, research-based scientific, Constitutional defense; educated the public through the news media, and launched the environmental justice movement.
Yet E.A.T.’s planners supported a celebration that focused on a government-driven narrative that described the “health” of the PCB landfill site along with the stated purpose to “share documents certifying the safety of the [PCB] site” and to “engage the community in conversation and development of a vision for the landfill site.”
Their vision for the site, as they clearly stated at the meeting and have publicly stated on previous occasions, is to build an environmental justice park and recreation facility on the PCB landfill site and to make this park a feature for future economic development. When questioned about the safety of the site for a public park and the need for new testing, Ms. Burwell, Staffer to Congressman Butterfield, said she felt certain that citizens trusted her opinion that the landfill site is clean and that she did not advocate new testing although she did respect that people had different feelings on the issue.CountyManagerLinda Worth added that the PCB landfill property deeded to the county from the state was assured to be safe.
My response to Ms. Burwell and Ms. Worth was that environmental justice depends on unfettered, independent science, not on the feelings and opinions of anyone, especially the word of principle responsible parties. I then described why we cannot accept the word of the state. I described that the state had built the PCB landfill on a marginal site, just above the water table; that the “dry-tomb” landfill had been capped with nearly a million gallons of water in it; that a leachate collection system had never been installed so that the water could be removed; that the top liner had bubbled up with methane and PCB gases, and that EPA had found significant PCB air emissions within months but never acknowledged these findings with the public; that state data had revealed that annually tens of thousands of gallons of water had been entering and exiting the landfill; that state and independent testing had found dioxins that far exceeded federal standards in various places on the 142-acre site; that independent detoxification oversight was not involved in the detoxification process, nor was the contamination found outside the landfill cleaned up.
As the tension in the room grew, and the meeting came to a close, Mr. Kearney suggested that we shelve the discussion of the park until after the celebration and that we move forward together to plan the thirtieth anniversary. When I stated that I was uncomfortable with a “health” march to the landfill as part of the celebration, he made it clear that this was his church’s annual health march, their plan, and there was no room for further discussion.
So, otherWarrenCountycitizens and myself made plans for an additional celebration, this one focusing on the dedication of an historic marker that the North Carolina Department of Historic Archives approved after I submitted a rationale for it. This approval did not come easily or without several months of wrangling over wording that I believed would be beneficial and acceptable to the county. Throughout the process, I shared communications between Mr. Mike Hill of the NC Archives Office and with Warren County Economic Development Director Dr. Gabe Cummings so that county government would know what was transpiring.
Then just a few weeks ago I learned from Mr. Hill that a call and an email had been directed to Senator Doug Berger’s office, and that Mr. Hill was to order the foundry to complete the marker so that the marker could be unveiled at the September 15th Coley Springs celebration. So, my plans for grassroot citizens to celebrate the PCB movement around the historic marker were usurped.
If readers want to understand why E.A.T. celebration planners have gone to such lengths to control the PCB narrative, they can google “parks on a former PCB landfill” which will take them to an EPA website (http://www.epa.gov/ciconference/previous/2007) titled: “INNOVATIVE APPROACHES TO COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: WARREN COUNTY, NC: PAST AND PRESENT – A Story of Community Involvement and Empowerment” by Dollie Burwell. On page 22 of the document, apparently speaking for county government, Ms. Burwell claims: “The Warren County PCB Landfill site was rededicated to the Environmental Justice Movement and the county government officials have agreed with the community to turn the former PCB Landfill site into a park and recreation facility.”
In fact, the public at large has never been consulted about a PCB landfill park, there have been no public hearings on the matter, there has never been independent testing by detoxification experts to confirm the safety of the detoxified landfill pit and the surrounding buffer zone, nor have citizens been asked if they would be willing to spend their taxes on expensive testing much less for a park and recreation facility that would duplicate the new park and facility the county already owns.
Ms. Burwell also claims on page 23 that one of the “Lessons Learned” is that “Mutual respect and equality in decision-making can help overcome challenges of trust and credibility.” However, when it comes to environmental justice, the wiser course of action is not to “trust,” but to verify through independent scientific oversight and a transparent, democratic process. Because of the absence of these two critical environmental justice components, I could not endorse nor attend the Coley Springs Baptist Church PCB anniversary celebration.