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From dumped on to praised: New documentary reveals how Warren County gave birth to a movement

A movie poster that features 12 faces of people who appear in the documentary. They images are part of a collage that includes newspaper test and a photograph of a truck dumping something.

By Will Atwater

Since 1982, when the state of North Carolina placed a hazardous waste landfill near the Warren County town of Afton, sparking six weeks of protest and thrusting the community into the national spotlight, local activists have fought to keep the past alive and to tell the story on their terms.

Now, with the contribution of two filmmakers and through first-person accounts, a pivotal moment in Warren County’s history has been preserved for future generations.

Local residents gathered last week at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Afton to watch Our Movement Starts Here, an 82-minute documentary that tells the story through archival footage, photographs and interviews. 

The film, produced by University of Mississippi filmmakers John Rash and Melanie Ho, opens by exploring Soul City, a Warren County community started in 1973 by late attorney and civil rights activist Floyd McKissick Sr. to improve economic opportunities for African Americans. 

From there, the film recounts a tumultuous six weeks of protests during which more than 500 people were arrested as they tried to prevent the opening of a hazardous waste facility in a rural, low-wealth and predominantly Black community.

Three men are standing at the front of a Church. There is a movie screen behind them with cover art from a documentary titled Our Movement Starts Here.
From left, filmmaker John Rash, Rev. Bill Kearney, and Wayne Moseley answer questions after the screening of “Our Movement Starts Here” on May 9 at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Afton, N.C. Credit: Will Atwater

“We tried our absolute best to tell the story through the voices of the people who were willing to share their stories,” Rash said during a question and answer session after the screening. “And I hope that that shows in the film in terms of just hearing it from their perspective.”

Bill Kearney, associate minister at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church and sponsor of the Warren County Environmental Action Team — an organization working to ensure that Warren County residents are the lead authors of their story — is relying on teamwork to make sure the story is told by those who lived it.

“This is our testimony, and there’s power in telling your story,” Kearney said. “Certain people, as you know, today don’t want us to tell [this] story. They rewrite history. That’s why it is very important that we [have] partnerships with the University of Mississippi, with UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, Ben and Jerry’s — a whole lot of people who see the significance of helping communities own their stories.”

The film explores in detail the landfill protests and other other important moments in Warren County history. 

Revisiting the past

In the summer of 1978, Buck Ward was president of Ward Transformer Company, a former electric transformer manufacturing, repair, sales and reconditioning plant based in Raleigh. Ward was charged and convicted with four other men with using trucks to discharge polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) along more than 200 miles of North Carolina roadways in 15 counties. Between “15,000 and 30,000 gallons of toxic chemical[s]” were dumped along the roadside, according to a 1979 New York Times article.

PCBs — now considered toxic and carcinogenic — belong to a group of manufactured chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons and were widely used in the U.S. from 1929 until they were banned in 1979. Exposure to these chemicals can result in a suppressed immune system and may cause cancer, among other adverse health effects, according to the CDC.

Warren County was thrust into the national spotlight in 1982 when then-Gov. Jim Hunt decided to place a toxic waste landfill in the Afton community to house the soil that had been sprayed with contaminants along the roadways by trucks operated by Ward Transformer.

Ultimately, the landfill was opened, and trucks deposited the contaminated soil there until the landfill was capped in the fall of 1982

‘Liners fail’

Then, in 1993, authorities discovered that water had seeped into the capped landfill. 

“We supposedly had a dry tomb landfill; it was lined on the bottom and lined on the top,” Patrick Barnes, an environmental geologist, said in the film. Barnes conducted testing that confirmed water was breaching the liner. “No water was supposed to get in or out. Of course, we know liners fail.”

“By looking at the water levels over time, you saw that it had seasonal cyclical fluctuations, which indicated that the water was coming in and going out seasonally,” he added.

The failed liner was of special concern to a community that relied on wells for drinking water. Barnes said that the remediation plan called for pumping the water out and hauling it to a disposal site. 

Community members objected.

Rev. Ben Chavis, a longtime civil rights and environmental justice activist who is credited with coining the phrase “environmental racism,” said the Afton community did not want to dump the contaminated water on another community.

Warren County Environmental justice Function. A man speaks with two women after meeting.
Rev. Ben Chavis speaks with two attendees of the Warren County 40th Anniversary Commemoration event. Credit: Will Atwater

“Warren County residents said, ‘If you take this water out of Warren County, don’t take it to Alabama, don’t take it to Mississippi—that’s not fair,” Chavis said. “They understood profoundly [that no community] — without regard to race, without regard to socioeconomic circumstances — should be exposed to these toxins.”

“We made a tough choice to keep [the contaminated water] where it was and forced the governor to detoxify it, which is something he promised us,” activist Deborah Feruccio said.

As a result, by 2003 the contaminated water was treated on site, and the landfill was closed permanently.

A lingering question

Although the fight to keep the hazardous waste landfill out of Warren County was unsuccessful, the effort provided language and a lasting framework for addressing today’s environmental justice issues. As mentioned, the term environmental racism emerged from the struggle, as did the environmental justice movement and the connections between civil rights, social justice, environmental justice and climate justice.

The image is a headline from an article published in 1982 by the New York Times Service. The headline reads: "PCB is Found in Breast Milk of Some Women."
PCBs — now considered toxic and carcinogenic — belong to a group of manufactured chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons and were widely used in the U.S. from 1929 until they were banned in 1979. Exposure to these chemicals can result in a suppressed immune system and may cause cancer, among other adverse health effects, according to the CDC. Credit: John Rash/The Southern Documentary Project /screen shot.

Forty-two years after the PCB protests, a crucial question lingers: Are there exposure risks for those living near to where the landfill was?

“One of the other great tragedies of the dumping is the fact that there’s been no concerted health study on the effects of that stuff in the community,” said Shauna Williams, who was interviewed in the film. “Anecdotally, [there were] people who had all kinds of illnesses that came up after the dumping.”

Angella Dunston added an exclamation point to Williams’ comment.

“If there was anything I feel the government could have done for us is, ‘Let’s make sure that these people who … have been dumped on are given access to at least a quality hospital, clinics and other resources should they ever contract a disease…cancer, that sort of thing. And as we well know, that is definitely what did not happen in my hometown.” 

However, the Warren County Environmental Action Committee has not let the unanswered questions stop it from moving forward. As previously reported by NCHN, the group, along with its partners, is working to establish an environmental justice center that will continue to support the movement, among other things.

Our Movement Starts Now will be available for free online from May 10 to May 19 as part of the Florida Environmental Film Festival (https://www.thefeff.org/florida-environmental-film-festival-events).

Film interview footage and the coverage of the 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Warren County Environmental Justice protests are available at https://southdocs.org/project/movementstartshere/

The post From dumped on to praised: New documentary reveals how Warren County gave birth to a movement appeared first on North Carolina Health News.

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