EJ resources

The Environmental Justice (EJ) Movement in Warren County, NC

1. Overview: Geographies of Waste in Warren County, NC

2. Links to New York Times articles on Warren County EJ issues, 1982-1993

3. Links to Historic Photographs of PCB protests in Warren County

4.Warren County EJ protests: A History in Headlines (map)


1. Geographies of Waste in Warren County, NC 

by Pavithra Vasudevan Kathanadhi

What is waste? What do we mean, when we label a certain thing as waste? On first glance, it may appear that waste is simply anything that has no value. And yet, if we look more closely, we begin to see that waste, and especially the relationship between waste and value, is more complex than it appears. This paper explores the relationship between waste and value through one particular place, Warren County, North Carolina. As the iconic ‘birthplace of environmental justice’ in the United States, Warren County helps us understand the complex ways in which waste and value are defined and re-defined in relationship to larger political and economic forces, social and cultural legacies, and local memories and happenings. In this paper, we try to offer a reading of waste and value that is rich with possibilities, inspired by the example and efforts of the environmental justice (EJ) movement in Warren County.

On Warren County

In 1982, the state of North Carolina decided to construct a landfill in Warren County to bury 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated by toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These truckloads were met by protesters laying down in civil disobedience, and over 500 people were subsequently arrested. The community-led protests are framed as the catalyst that drew attention to how toxicity predominantly affects communities of color (Bullard 2000), and Warren County’s pivotal struggle against the siting of toxic waste in a poor and primarily African-American rural area became an icon of the nascent Environmental Justice (EJ) movement. U.S. environmentalism has since had to reconsider issues of equity and justice as intimately tied to conceptions of nature and environment (Bullard 2005, McGurty 2007).

The term ‘environmental racism’, fore-fronting race as a determining factor of unequal distribution of environmental hazards, was coined in reference to Warren County (Cutter 1995). The media attention generated by the protests inspired the first study undertaken by the U.S. federal government, at the behest of the Congressional Black Caucus, linking racial demography to waste siting (USGAO 1983, Bullard 2004), as well as a landmark report by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice that provided clearer statistical evidence across a broader geography of the entire U.S. (UCC 1987). This articulation of Warren County as the icon of environmental racism serves a mythological function in cementing a unified historical narrative for the modern environmental justice movement (McGurty 2007).  While the landfill site was remediated in 2004 – costing $18 million following a protracted legal battle – Bullard makes a case for reparations to be paid to the surrounding communities (Bullard 2004).
In Warren County today, residents have mixed responses to the safety of the site, and concerns about toxicity linger for some, especially with regards to drinking water. Grassroots community and church leaders hope to leverage Warren County’s iconic history towards greater environmental awareness and sustainable economic development. The Warren County Environmental Action Team is a collaborative effort by leaders from across the community who are organizing events to commemorate and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the anti-PCB protests, approaching this September. The Growing Local/Buying Local project seeks to revitalize the local/regional agricultural economy, building on the rich history of the past and promoting greater community engagement in the process. Both these efforts, and others in Warren County today, seek to transform their reality through acknowledgement of the latent potential and awareness of future possibilities. Our understandings of waste and value build on these discourses.


2.  Links to New York Times articles on Warren County, 1982-1993

By B. Madison Williams

This word cloud was generated using newspaper articles focused on the beginnings of the Environmental Justice Movement in Warren County, and specifically the PCB protests in 1982. These are the words that stood out in those article, the words that people were using to describe the situation. This word cloud captures not only the danger the Warren citizens felt themselves to be in because of the landfill, but also the danger they were actually in of being arrested because of their efforts to protest. Over 500 arrests were made.  Click on the map for a larger image.

The links to the original articles can be found below.







3.  Historic photographs of PCB protests in Warren County

By B. Madison Williams



Each of these photographs was taken during the original PCB march in Warren County to protest the siting of the landfill. The depict the diversity of the movement, showing people of different races, sexes, and ages uniting for environmental justice. These were collected from the records of various photographers; links to the original images can be found below.









4.  Warren County EJ protests: A History in Headlines (map)

by Pavithra Vasudevan Kathanadhi