North Carolina, like much of America, has a long and ignoble history of environmental racism, a term first coined by famed civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis, who defined it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities.”

Chavis, who first came to the public’s attention as a member of the Wilmington Ten, added there’s an “official sanctioning of the life threatening poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” 

Excluding the people who need the greatest access to power is ironic when one considers that what may have been the first popular song to address the environment was written by a Black man—Marvin Gaye’s Mercy, Mercy Me, (The Ecology) on his landmark 1971 album, “What’s Going On.”

Chavis defined the term while leading a revolt against former Governor Jim Hunt’s decision to dump cancer-causing PCP chemicals in a poor Black farming community in Warren County, about an hour’s drive south of Durham.  

Over the years there have been more instances of environmental racism in North Carolina, including in Badin, the Stanly County town where an Alcoa aluminum smelting plant located near a largely Black neighborhood closed its doors in the 1990s, but not before discharging cyanide and other pollutants into nearby rivers and streams. 

“Badin Lake, the Town of Albemarle’s water supply, is now so polluted that fish consumption advisories are posted on its outskirts. Nearby Little Mountain Creek is also used for recreation, though they’re both considered state-designated impaired waterways because of the legacy of pollution,” according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which in 2019 helped to negotiate a settlement that requires Alcoa Badin Works to construct a new stormwater system that will stop contaminated groundwater from being discharged into those surrounding water bodies where neighbors once fished. 

“Now state-issued signs dot the shore advising those fish are unsafe to eat,” SELC officials reported after the settlement.

There was the disproportionate impact in 1999 wrought by Hurricane Floyd across eastern North Carolina’s Black neighborhoods, particularly in Princeville, the nation’s first town incorporated by African Americans. The town, first named Freedom Hill, was built by freedman in 1865 on the discarded and unwanted space of their former owners. Princeville was left underwater for weeks after Floyd’s floodwaters subsided.

Here in the Bull City, residents of the McDougald Terrace community—who were already contending with crime, mold conditions, gas leaks, lead paint, and pervasive sewage issues—were forced to leave the neighborhood months before the pandemic after fire officials discovered elevated levels of carbon monoxide seeping from appliances in their homes.

The outrages continue. The INDY this week pointed to maps that show Durham’s Black neighborhoods are hotter than white communities, owing to markedly fewer trees and shade from the sun. As a consequence, Black people are more likely to suffer from heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and aggravated underlying conditions like diabetes.

The noxious history of environmental racism came to mind while reading Xander Peters’ “A Lifetime of Damage on a Creosote Plume in Houston’s Fifth Ward,” which appears in the August 3 edition of Scalawag magazine. The disturbing story was published in collaboration with Environmental Health News.

Predictably, but not surprising, Peters writes that the courts and private industry both say Fifth Ward residents have to prove that creosote, a tar-like substance used to treat telephone poles, coming from a nearby rail yard are responsible for the high rates of cancer in the community.

Peters writes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists creosote as a “probable human carcinogen.”

The story focuses on the plight of Dianna Cormier-Jackson, who grew up in the Fifth Ward during the 1960s and remembers the heavy smell of oil and gasoline in the air from the creosote that was used by the rail yard to treat and preserve railroad ties.

Cormier-Jackson’s mother died of cancer. So did her brother, her former husband, and a brother-in-law.

“Neighbor after neighbor,” she says. 

Peters’ story shows that Black Americans have endured environmental threats long before climate change, global warming, and environmental issues became a broader concern here in America, and globally. 

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