THREE SIMULTANEOUS EVENTS: THE NC MIDNIGHT PCB DUMPINGS; THE LOVE CANAL, NY EVACUATION; FEDERAL TOXIC SUBSTANCE CONTROL ACT BECOMES EFFECTIVE
The 30 year PCB saga was followed closely by the public and promoted in the media which played a central role throughout this explosive history. The story began in the late summer of 1978 when three events were taking place simultaneously, spotlighting the need for new, allegedly safe, “state-of-the-art,” toxic waste landfill depositories.
- Midnight Dumpings: Beginning in late July and into early August, in the middle of the night, for nearly two-weeks, drivers of a black tanker truck deliberately spewed 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil alongside some 220 miles (numbers of miles vary) of highway shoulders in 14 North Carolina counties. In late June, PCBs had already been spewed along 11 miles of roadsides at the Ft. Bragg Army Base. They carefully left along the roadsides a three-foot swath of oil contaminated with deadly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and dibenzofurans. In some cases, the drivers returned to the same roads the following nights leaving a trail of contaminated oil on the other side of the highways. When they reached the Virginia border, they turned the truck around, thus limiting the crime to North Carolina. The public later learned that the PCBs came from the Ward Transformer Co. in Raleigh, North Carolina, and that the owner, Robert “Buck” Ward, and his business partner, Robert Burns, and his sons, were responsible for the crime. State officials maintained that the midnight dumpers merely wanted to avoid the disposal costs of PCBs under new federal regulations. Later criminal charges against Ward and Burns were dropped by the state while federal charges put them briefly in jail.
- Love Canal, NY Evacuates: The very week that the midnight dumpers were leaving their noxious three-foot swath of poison, the national news media was making the case for EPA’s new, allegedly safer landfills as it focused on irate residents of Love Canal, New York, who were being permanently evacuated from their homes which had been contaminated by an old, leaking toxic waste landfill left by the Hooker Chemical Company.
- Toxic Substance Control Act Effective: On August 2, 1978, as the PCBs were being dumped in North Carolina and the disaster of Love Canal was fresh in the public’s minds, the federal Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) became effective. Under TSCA, more stringent toxic waste disposal regulations and cleanup standards for PCBS were specifically addressed. TSCA did not provide for public participation in the permitting process for PCB landfills while other hazardous waste, subject to the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA), required public participation in the permitting process. Because of their high concentrations, under TSCA, the North Carolina roadside PCBs would legally have to be picked up and buried in an EPA-approved landfill.
Birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement (EMJ)
While Warren County is hailed as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement where national civil rights leaders joined local citizens in their struggle, very little is known about the conceptual evolution that led to the scientific activism which fired up the imagination of the people who marched the movement into history. Little is known about the four arduous years that led up to and created the movement and about what really happened to that movement in the decades that followed. Some of the history has been eclipsed and mythologized.
For students and scholars who are interested in the unfiltered Warren County environmental justice history and ordinary citizens who want to educate themselves and others on the issues and help protect their environment and their children’s futures, this website is of value.
Activists Become Historians
While they were being activists, Ken and Deborah also became historians because they knew that they needed to keep and record this precedent-setting PCB history as they were helping forge it. So they have accumulated some 3,000 documents which Deborah has catalogued and chronologically ordered, including hundreds of newspaper articles, government papers, letters, journals, and more. Some of these archives have been lost to the public. Ken and Deborah also have scores of audio and video tape recordings of meetings, hearings, and interviews as well as memories indelibly seared into their hearts and minds.