“We are tired of being dumped on.”
In February, Belinda Joyner caught a ride to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Alongside a couple of close friends, the 67-year-old rode from her home in Garysburg, a 1,000-person town near the North Carolina-Virginia border, up to Washington, D.C.
They were there to watch the court hear arguments over whether the U.S. Forest Service should be allowed to issue permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to be built through national forest lands connected to the Appalachian Trail.
The 600-mile, $8 billion pipeline—spearheaded by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy and first proposed in 2014—would run through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, delivering some 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Appalachian Basin. In North Carolina, the pipeline is set to snake through eight counties: Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, Robeson, and Northampton—Joyner’s back yard.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 to allow the companies to secure right-of-way under the AT.
The ruling was a blow to Joyner and her neighbors. The pipeline, they say, is just the latest example of unwanted industry development disrupting their community with dire consequences for human and environmental health. But in the marathon that is the fight for environmental justice, setbacks come with the territory.
In the shadow of the nearby second-home tourist haven Lake Gaston, Northampton County, with its predominantly Black population, has been a hotbed of environmental activism for more than 25 years. But with the ACP halfway in the ground and the nearby Enviva wood-pellet facility recently granted permits to expand by the state Department of Environmental Quality—a development that raises additional concerns over air pollution—community members say they’ve been worn down by the Sisyphean task of fighting for a healthy future.
“[The companies] don’t live here, so they don’t have to suffer with the damage they cause to the community,” Joyner says. “We are tired of being dumped on.”
Northampton County is at a crossroads.
Perched on the border of Virginia and the geological fall line where the harder rock of the Piedmont region transitions to the softer soils of the Coastal Plain, the area is bisected by both the CSX rail line, which ships freight from the Deep South to ports in Virginia, and the Roanoke and Meherrin Rivers. The home of Tuscarora and Meherrin Native Americans, the area was later known for its horse-racing scene. Driving down the highway, you can spot the historical marker honoring Sir Archie, one of the industry’s legendary equine founding fathers.
Today, the fields of peanuts and cotton are interspersed with driving ranges and Dollar Generals. But much of the development has felt less auspicious.
On a warm, cloudless day, Joyner tours me around her hometown, rubbing her temples as she describes the struggles the community of 20,000 has faced.
A retired schoolteacher with an infectious cackle, Joyner was born and raised in Garysburg. She remembers when the Lowe’s distribution center opened, bringing with it one of the first pockets of stable jobs, and when the Piggly Wiggly left, leaving the area without a grocery store.
Joyner is on a first-name basis with as many state environmental groups as she is with company executives. But her activism grew more from necessity than idealism. Her first foray into environmental justice was in the late 1990s when a fertilizer company decided to build a plant down the street from where she lives.
Back then, she says, it was easier to organize and motivate folks. The company sent out a letter notifying residents about the planned plant, and by that afternoon Joyner had 30 people crammed into her house to voice their concerns to county commissioners.
“I’m a curious person,” Joyner says. “I try to pay attention to things and not take it for granted to say it can’t happen to me. Because if it can happen to you, it can happen to me.”
Their collective action proved enough to stop the fertilizer plant, and the group stuck together. Over the years, Joyner and her allies fought a number of battles against development they saw as environmentally or physiologically damaging: the WestRock paper mill, the hog farm on Warner Bridge Road, the natural gas compressor station.
In 2015, a company called VistaGreen purchased an 800-acre piece of land in the northeastern part of the county with plans to build a pair of landfills to dispose of coal ash produced by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy.
The landfills, VistaGreen promised, would bring jobs and millions in new revenue for the county. Residents, concerned over reports of the impacts of leaching coal ash, wanted nothing to do with the project. Joyner and the others formed Northampton County Citizens Against Coal Ash, attending county commission meetings and organizing against the proposed landfills. In 2018, the county planning board denied the company its proposal to rezone the area.
Each of these fights made the community more resilient, Joyner says, but also more resigned to industry encroachment. Citizens Against Coal Ash still meets once a month to stay abreast of developments, but the years have turned some residents’ collective indignation into self-preservation. To require folks who are struggling to pay the electric bill or find child care to confront an existential threat like climate change or a multinational corporation is asking for division, Joyner says.
“It just destroys a neighborhood,” she says. Now, “everyone’s about self instead of caring about people or your neighborhood or community or where you live.”
Designated a Tier 1 county by the state—the “most distressed” based on factors including income and unemployment—Northampton’s median household income is $36,000 (compared to the state median of $52,000). The county is 57 percent Black, and one in every five residents lives below the poverty line.
Last year, the University of Wisconsin calculated a ranking system for all the counties in the U.S. based on health outcomes (such as lifespan and self-reported health status) and other factors (environmental, social, and economic). According to the report, out of the 100 counties in North Carolina, Northampton ranks 92nd in health factors and 96th in health outcomes.
These quality-of-life struggles are exactly why companies decide to expand in communities like Northampton, says Richie Harding, a member of the county board of education.
“You don’t want to have a hog farm in the middle of Raleigh, so you’re going to look at rural areas where there’s going to be less fight,” he says. “People get ran in the ground, they get worn out.”
In a trend echoed nationwide, the area’s economic struggles have led to an exodus, with those who can—roughly 11 percent of the county’s population since 2010—leaving for greener pastures. One of Joyner’s friends in the environmental justice movement was among those to decide he’d had enough. “Unless you’re going to work in a fast-food restaurant, there’s not a lot to come back to Northampton County for,” Joyner says. “Our children go away and only come back for a visit.”
But for her—attached by a commitment to the community—leaving isn’t an option.
“My daughter asked me one time, ‘Mama, if I win the lottery, where do you want me to build you a house?’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna stay right here.’ I don’t know anywhere else I would want to live but right here.”
As we wind through the county backroads, Joyner points out the cuts where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been routed. By one count, 6 percent of the pipeline is already in the ground—the freshly turned ochre-colored soil is the only indication that anything happened here. But a few of the pipes—seafoam green lengths of steel three feet in diameter—are yet to be buried.
“The companies think it’s a done deal,” she says. “That’s why they’re pressing so hard to get it going.”
According to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission analysis, more than half of the 105 census tracts in Virginia and North Carolina within a mile of the pipeline’s route have disproportionately high populations that are low-income or communities of color, including some 30,000 Native Americans. Compared to statewide numbers, the analysis also found that Native Americans are over-represented by a factor of 10 along the North Carolina section of the pipeline route, according to Ryan Emanuel, an N.C. State associate professor who wrote a letter in Science about the issue.
The ACP reported it would compensate landowners based on “fair market value,” but according to a review of easement agreements, some were paid as little as $160 an acre for the company to run the pipeline through their land.
“When you’re trying to get [locals’] land and you stick a check in their face and say, ‘You either take our money or we’ll take you to court,’ what is that if not taking our land?” said one landowner at a recent DEQ meeting.
In Northampton County, Joyner and other residents are concerned about the blast zone of the pipeline, an industry-calculated area within which a hypothetical explosion would cause injury or death. (The ACP’s blast zone encompasses some of Garysburg and a portion of the nearby Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge). They worry, too, about the compressor station down the road and the increased construction traffic kicking up dust and clogging roads.
“We don’t need no addition,” says Silverleen Alston, another Garysburg resident. “We dealing with enough.”
The pipes themselves, coated with an epoxy, may also pose a safety risk. Manufactured by 3M, the fusion-bonded epoxy is considered a carcinogen, and the National Association of Pipe Coating Manufacturers advises that pipes coated with the epoxy be stored above ground for no longer than six months. Some pipes have been sitting exposed to the sun since shortly after they were built in late 2015, according to groups like Clean Water for NC.
In a response last summer to concerns about the coating and a FERC directive, Dominion downplayed the hazards, writing that “Although 3M has no conclusive evidence at this time to confirm their exact identity, the degradation products are generated in low quantities, have low water solubility, and are therefore not expected to enter the environment in amounts capable of producing an adverse human health effect.”
The project has faced legal challenges since its inception. Environmental groups have lodged a Title VI complaint against the DEQ, alleging the agency discriminated on the basis of race when it issued certifications for the pipeline. They have also petitioned the state to revoke permits issued in early 2018 that the groups claim were based on faulty math and incorrectly assessed community impacts.
And there are now questions regarding the underlying need for the gas the pipeline plans to deliver, with Dominion admitting (backed up by an Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report) that natural-gas consumption will likely remain flat for the next 15 years.
The ACP voluntarily halted construction in late 2018 after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of several federal permits. While the recent Supreme Court decision eliminated one hurdle for the project, it is still missing seven state and federal permits, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling does not disturb other aspects of the 4th Circuit’s decision, which found that the Forest Service had violated the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in approving the pipeline’s route through two national forests,” according to one analysis.
The company has said it plans to push forward with the project as soon as it is legally able to and filed a recent notice with FERC requesting an extension for construction until late 2022. And in the end, in keeping with North Carolina utilities law, the ACP will recover much of its investment through charges to taxpayers, regardless of the demand for the project or its eventual production.
“It’s the [taxpayers’] money,” Joyner says. “So, in other words, I’m paying you to kill me.”
In Garysburg it’s impossible to miss the trucks.
On the tight, two-lane U.S. 158, which parallels the state line in northeastern North Carolina, the flatbeds rumble along, stacked high with the trunks of soft pine headed to be pulverized, dried, and compacted into tiny, hard pellets, transported north to a port in Virginia, and from there shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe to be burned for heat and fuel.
In Garysburg, the trucks are all headed to the same place: a turnoff marked by a white sign emblazoned with the word Enviva.
Founded in 2004, the company’s first North Carolina plant, which is built on an old Georgia Pacific sawmill, opened in Ahoskie in 2011. Plans for the Garysburg facility soon followed.
Locals pushed back against the company, voicing concerns to the North Carolina DEQ over air pollution from the dryers, dust from construction, and the constant caravan of log-laden flatbeds. They raised questions, too, about the sustainability and benefits of the biomass industry.
But despite the protests, Enviva’s Garysburg plant secured state approval and, in 2013, churned out its first load of pellets.
Situated near several homes and partially obscured by trees, the biomass facility cranks out hundreds of thousands of tons of pellets each year.
At a public hearing last summer to determine if the DEQ should issue permits to allow the facility to increase its production by 235,000 tons per year, residents questioned whether the company was properly measuring emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in the air.
“People in this community need to know exactly what they’re being exposed to,” J.C. Woodley, a retired EPA worker from Northampton County, told DEQ officials at the hearing. “We need to know. We need protection.”
The agency received some 2,400 public comments, at least 95 percent of which opposed the expansion. In October, it approved the new permit under the condition that the company must install additional air-emission control equipment.
Emission controls aside, this type of “bridge fuel” expansion, similar to natural gas, runs counter to the accepted science that calls for drastic and immediate emissions cuts, says Rachel Weber, a former forests-and-climate campaigner with the nonprofit Dogwood Alliance.
“We are on a tremendously tight and aggressive timeline to make carbon emissions reductions,” Weber says. “That’s why we need to be making significant sweeping changes today.”
Viewed strictly from a forestry-health perspective, some argue that wood pellets are a viable form of fuel.
“The carbon bottom line is that forests at a regional scale in North Carolina are sustainable,” Fred Cubbage and Robert Abt, professors at N.C. State’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, wrote in a recent op-ed in The News & Observer. “Forest volume and carbon are increasing. Life cycle analysis and dynamic timber markets and investments at the state level support the merits of this renewable resource.”
In terms of overall emissions, however, the jury is out on biomass. A recent UK report determined that greenhouse gas emissions from biomass could be either higher or lower than traditional fossil fuels, but in neither case will come close to the net-zero emissions goal the UK has set for 2050.
While the down-the-line greenhouse gasses are concerning, the main issue for local residents is emissions from the plant that may be directly affecting their health. The plant emits VOCs, a component of smog that, in elevated quantities, has been tied to negative health impacts such as nervous system and organ damage.
Alston lives a stone’s throw from the Enviva plant on land her grandfather inherited. As soon as the facility opened, she says, she would wake up to find her home covered in a layer of fine dust.
“You have no choice but to deal with it because it’s there,” she says. “I can’t afford to jump up and leave town.”
And there’s noise: heavy machinery operating, sometimes in the middle of the night, which keeps Alston from sleeping. She used to call the company to complain, but it never worked.
“The noise still go on—it ain’t stop. But I got tired of calling,” she says.
As part of discussions with the community, Enviva sent five $100 gift cards to the local school system. Recently, the company also donated laptops to area schoolchildren and hosted a luncheon for first responders.
For Joyner, these are token gestures.
“Damn a book bag. What’s a book bag when a child might have asthma?” she says, pointing to data that in North Carolina, low-income, rural, and non-white residents are more likely to have asthma. “They just prey on communities of color, poor communities. Stuff that they wouldn’t dare have near their community, they don’t have a problem saying ‘You all take it.’”
At public hearings, Envira has painted a different picture: “We care about people, we care about the communities we operate in, and we care about the state of North Carolina,” vice president of environmental affairs Yonna Kravtsova said at one. “The [Northampton plant] has a valid and legal permit and is operating in full compliance. Why would anyone oppose it?”
In response to a series of detailed questions for this article, an Enviva spokesperson issued the following statement: “Enviva is proud to be an integral part of the communities we operate in, driving economic growth and making communities stronger. Our Northampton plant contributes over $150 million annually in regional economic impact and supports nearly 300 direct and indirect jobs.”
“If I give up, who will stand up for us?”
These days, Joyner spends most of her time at her home, a neat white one-story with a large oak tree in the back. There’s plenty of news to read and calls to make, but she misses being able to give Harding hell for forgetting to weed-whack her driveway and embarrassing local schoolkids by checking in on them when she runs into them at the grocery store.
Joyner prefers to highlight the positives. She’d rather talk about Keion Crossen, the Northampton High School football star who won a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots in 2018. She’d rather talk about her children, reminiscing about their childhood soccer games. (“I’d be hoarse running up and down that sideline.”) She still enjoys the occasional day of substitute teaching kindergarteners.
“I just wanted what I thought would be peaceful living,” she says. “But now I can lay in my bed at night and hear the trucks going up and down the highway. Sometimes I get discouraged, but then I think. ‘If I give up, who will stand up for us?’”
So she keeps catching rides around the state for environmental justice meetings, confronting commissioners, and taking calls from reporters. Covid-19 has made it even more difficult. A separate wood-pellet plant proposed in Lumberton is currently going through an extended DEQ comment period, and a digital public hearing was added only after pressure from locals.
“When people think you’re sleeping, that’s when they’re trying to do the most damage,” Joyner says.
There are several pathways that, in Joyner’s eyes, could prove part of a workable solution. The state’s new Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan directs agencies to “integrate climate adaptation and resiliency planning into their policies, programs, and operations.” Cumulative impact studies could better describe the long-term health and environmental effects of plants and pipelines.
But her experience with the government means she no longer holds her breath over any of it. She says Governor Cooper’s office does not return her calls. She feels brushed aside by local representatives and the DEQ, which claim to have made “a lot of progress” over the last year on environmental justice and transitioning the state off fossil fuels. And besides, who needs another government task force or study to tell her what she already knows? Her community is suffering.
“I’m tired,” she says. “Sometimes it’s like I’m fighting a losing battle. But it’s not about me, it’s about my people, and I’m going to be a voice for my people until I die.”
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