Disastrous response to natural and man-made disasters: an environmental justice analysis twenty-five years after Warren County.

Author:Bullard, Robert D.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. STUDIES IN FAILURE: FEDERAL AND STATE RESPONSES TO ENVIRONMENTAL EMERGENCIES A. Government Response to the PCB Threat in Warren County 1. "Hunt's Dump" 2. Why Warren County? 3. The Warren County Siting Decision: A Symptom of a Larger Disease B. The "Dumping Grounds" in a Tennessee Town 1. Why Eno Road? 2. Treatment of the African American Holt Family 3. Treatment of White Families in Dickson County 4. Proximity of the Dickson County Landfill to Elected Officials' Homes C. Environmental Threats in post-Katrina New Orleans 1. Cleaning Up Toxic Neighborhoods 2. Katrina's Wake: Mountains of Trash, Contaminated Soil, and the Community Response 3. Toxic FEMA Trailers III. CONCLUSION I.


Historically, people of color communities have borne a disproportionate burden of pollution from landfills, garbage dumps, incinerators, smelters, sewage treatment plants, chemical industries, and a host of other polluting facilities. Many dirty industries have followed the "path of least resistance," allowing low-income and people of color neighborhoods to become the "dumping grounds" for all kinds of health-threatening operations. (1)

This paper provides an analysis of real-life examples of how government response to environmental emergencies is endangering the health and safety of vulnerable populations. The paper uses an environmental justice framework to examine the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response to toxic contamination and man-made disasters in three communities: Warren County, North Carolina, Dickson, Tennessee, and post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana.

For decades, hundreds of communities from New York to Alaska have used a variety of tactics to confront environmental injustice. (2) It was not until 1990, however, after extensive prodding from grassroots environmental justice activists, educators, and academics, that the EPA began to take action on environmental justice concerns. (3) In 1992, under the George H. Bush Administration, the EPA produced Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities, a report that finally acknowledged the fact that some populations shoulder greater environmental health risks than others. (4)

A few years later, in 1994, President William Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations." (5) This Order attempted to address environmental injustice within existing federal laws and regulations. Additionally, the Order reinforced existing legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI, which prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal funds, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that set policy goals for the protection, maintenance and enhancement of the environment. (6)

The Executive Order also called for the federal government to improve methodologies for assessing and mitigating impacts, including health effects from multiple and cumulative exposure and impacts on subsistence fishers and consumers of wild game. Moreover, the Order required the collection of data on low-income and minority populations who may be disproportionately at risk and encouraged participation of the impacted populations in the various phases of assessing impacts--including scoping, data gathering, analysis of alternatives, mitigation, and monitoring.

The EPA and FEMA are two of twelve federal agencies covered under the Executive Order. FEMA was founded in 1979 by consolidating the emergency management functions formerly administered by five different Federal agencies. FEMA was an independent Federal agency reporting to the President and was charged with planning for, mitigating, responding to, and recovering from natural and manmade disasters. The agency was built around an all-hazards planning assumption that many kinds of emergencies (e.g., earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, hurricanes, and enemy attacks) could be treated similarly and that building capabilities could function across multiple threat domains. (7)

This all changed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack (9-11). In March 2003, FEMA became one of 22 agencies in the 180,000-employee Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pursuant to the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. Even FEMA staff warned top officials that its inclusion into the DHS, an agency dominated by military, security, and law enforcement officials, would weaken its emergency management functions and undermine readiness for other catastrophes--resulting in "potentially dangerous consequences." (8)

Many long-term employees began leaving FEMA in the aftermath of 9-11 when its inclusion into DHS resulted in a raiding of FEMA's funds, a transferring of staff, and a shift in the agency's mission from natural disasters to fighting terrorism. As the natural disaster emphasis at FEMA was all but "phased out," (9) disaster management took a significant step backward. (10) The changed structure of FEMA and the new emphasis on terrorism contributed to serious problems. (11) As early as 2002, Brookings Institution scholars raised questions about the new role of FEMA in DHS, asking whether the "the Reauthorization [was] too broad" and questioning whether "the Department [could] be effectively managed?" (12)



  1. Government Response to the PCB Threat in Warren County

    1. "Hunt's Dump"

      The environmental justice movement has come a long way from its humble beginnings in rural and mostly African-American Warren County, North Carolina. (13) In December 2003, after living near toxic waste for more than two decades, a long due environmental justice victory finally came to the residents of predominately black Warren County, North Carolina. Since 1982, the county residents lived with the legacy of a 142-acre toxic waste dump. Detoxification work on the dump began in June 2001 and ended in the latter part of December 2003. State and federal sources spent $18 million to detoxify or neutralize contaminated soil stored at the Warren County PCB landfill. (14) The pollution was so extensive that a private contractor hired by the state dug-up and burned 81,500 tons of oil-laced soil--in a kiln that reached more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit--in order to remove the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The soil was put back in a football-size pit, re-covered to form a mound, graded, and seeded with grass.

      Even after detoxification, some Warren County residents still question the completeness of the clean-up, especially since PCBs may have migrated beyond the three-acre landfill site into the 137-acre buffer zone that surrounds the landfill (and includes a nearby creek and outlet basin). PCBs are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants (PBTs). (15) That is, they are highly toxic, long-lasting substances capable of accumulating throughout the food chain and reaching levels harmful to human and ecosystem health. Moreover, PCBs are probable human carcinogens, can cause developmental effects (such as low birth weight), and are capable of disrupting hormone function.

      In 2003, the sign at the entrance to the Warren County PCB landfill still read, "PCB Landfill--No Trespassing." This toxic-waste dump, initially forced on the tiny Alton community in 1982 when more than 84% of the community was black, helped trigger the national environmental justice movement. While the "midnight dumpers" originally responsible for the PCB contamination in Warren County were prosecuted with limited success (16), the innocent Afton community received the onerous 21-year sentence of living in a toxic-waste prison. (17)

      The PCB landfill has become one of the most recognized landmarks in the county, and Warren County has become a national symbol of the environmental justice movement. By 1993, the facility began failing--with thirteen feet of water trapped in the landfill. (18) For nearly a decade thereafter community leaders pressed the state to decontaminate the leaky site. As Warren County residents sought guarantees that the state government was not creating a future "superfund" site that would threaten nearby residents, the state persistently argued that the site was safe--leaving residents little choice but to trust the state's assessment. Clearly, as evidenced by the 18 million dollar cleanup ultimately performed in 2003, the state's assurances were empty. Unfortunately, recent history and countless case studies suggest prevalent government deception and discriminatory treatment when addressing public health threats to people of color. This differential government response to the health threats facing African-Americans perpetuates a form of "medical apartheid" that does little to instill trust. (19)

    2. Why Warren County?

      Selecting a landfill site is not rocket science. The Warren County PCB landfill site was not the most scientifically suitable, because the water table at the landfill is very shallow (only 5-10 feet below the surface). Also, the residents of the community used local wells for all of their drinking water needs. Even the head of the EPA's hazardous waste implementation branch, William Sanjour, questioned the siting decision. In the end, the decision was more political science than toxicology or hydrology. (20)

      Warren County is located in Eastern North Carolina. The 29 counties located "Down East" are noticeably different from the rest of North Carolina. (21) According to 2000 census, whites comprised 62 percent of the population in Eastern North Carolina and 72 percent statewide. Blacks are concentrated in the northeastern and the central parts of the region. Warren County is one of six counties in the region where blacks comprised a majority of the population in 2000: Bertie County (62.3%), Hertford (59.6%), Northhampton (59.4%), Edgecombe (57.5%), Warren...

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