Warren County Landfill Protest of 1982: one of the 1st cases of environmental justice in the US

Warren County PCB Landfill was a PCB landfill located in Warren County, North Carolinanear the community of Afton south of Warrenton. The landfill was created in 1982 by the State of North Carolina as a place to dump contaminated soil as result of an illegal PCB dumping incident. The site, which is about 150 acres (0.61 km2), was extremely controversial and led to years of lawsuits. Warren County was one of the first cases of environmental justice in the United States and set a precedent for other environmental justice cases. The site was approximately three miles south of Warrenton. The state owned about 19 acres (77,000 m2) of the tract where the landfill was located and Warren County owned the surrounding acres around the borders.


The purpose of the Warren County PCB landfill, as the public knew it, was to bury 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil that been contaminated with toxic PCBs between June and August, 1978, by Robert J. Burns, a business associate with Robert “Buck” Ward of the Ward PCB Transformer Company of Raleigh, North Carolina. Burns and his sons deliberately dripped 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil along some 240 miles of highway shoulders in 14 counties. Burns of Jamestown, New York, was supposed to take the oil to a facility to be recycled. Allegedly, the rationale for Burns’ crime was that he wanted to save money by circumventing new, EPA regulations that would make waste disposal more transparent and costly, but he could have easily, discretely, and illegally disposed of the PCB contaminated oil in a matter of hours. Burns and Ward were sent to prison for a short time for their involvement in the crime. The Ward Transformer site would later go onto the EPA Superfund cleanup list and be the primary polluter of Lake Crabtree and the Neuse River in Raleigh, NC. Contaminants from the Ward site have been detoxified, but the area around the site and surrounding creeks, lakes, and rivers have been permanently polluted.

Soon after the “midnight PCB dumpings,” the state erected large warning signs along the roadsides, making the public feel as if the roadside PCBs posed an imminent public health threat. However, the Hunt Administration let the PCBs lay for four years as the PCBs spread into the environment while Warren County Citizens fiercely opposed the PCB landfill. The Governor, the North Carolina General Assembly, and the EPA found they would have to make the political, legal, and regulatory preparations to forcibly bury the PCBs in Warren County.
The Warren County PCB landfill was permitted as a “dry-tomb” toxic waste landfill by the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA approved the “dry-tomb” PCB landfill which failed from the beginning because it was capped with nearly a million gallons of water in it. The site never operated as a commercial facility because residents forced the Governor to include in the deed that it was a one-time only toxic waste facility. The landfill was built with plastic liners, a clay cap, and PVC pipes allowed for methane and toxic gas to be released from the landfill. Although state officials told citizens they planned to build the landfill with a perforated pipe leachate collection system under the landfill, a system critical to a functioning “dry’tomb” landfill, no such leachate collection system was ever installed. The nearly 1 million gallons of water that was capped in the “dry-tomb” landfill could not be pumped out, and citizens later learned from state rainfall and landfill monitoring data that tens of thousands of gallons of water had been entering and exiting the landfill for years. Within a few months of burying the PCBs, EPA found significant PCB air emissions at the landfill and 1/2 mile away, but citizens did not learn about this report for another 15 years later. The 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil were buried within about 7 feet of groundwater. Warren County’s first independent scientist, Dr. Charles Mulchi, had predicted that the landfill would inevitably fail because of unsuitable soils and close proximity to groundwater. He had pointed out at a January 4, 1979, EPA public hearing that state scientists had misrepresented the depths of soil sample testing they had conducted at the site. At Dr. Mulchi’s insistence, the state added a plastic top liner to the landfill.

According to detoxification expert, Dr. Joel Hirshhorn, who represented Warren County citizens as they pressed Governor Hunt and the NC General Assembly for funding for a cleanup, the Warren county PCB landfill was an utter failure that should never have been approved by the EPA.
Reference, Ferruccio, Deborah, ncpcbarchives.com


Beginning with the Hunt Administration’s December 20, 1978, announcement that “public sentiment would not deter the state from burying the PCBs in Warren County,” the PCB landfill was filled with controversy. The landfill was located in rural Warren County, which was primarily African American. Warren County has about 18,000 people living in the county. Sixty-nine percent of the residents are nonwhite, and twenty percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level. The county has been determined as a Tier I county for economic development. The state claimed that the Warren County site was the best available site; however, the site selection process was not based on scientific criteria — soil permeability properties or the distance to groundwater — but on other, less tangible criteria, including the demographics of the county. EPA and state officials claimed they could compensate for improper soil qualities and the close proximity to groundwater with the engineering design of their “state-of-the-art,”, “dry-tomb”, Cadillac, zero percent discharge landfill.
After four years of arduous due process in an effort to stop the PCB landfill, including litigation, Warren County citizens officially launched the environmental justice movement as they lay in front of 10,000 truckloads of contaminated PCB soil. During the six-week trucking opposition, with collective nonviolent direct action, which included over 550 arrests, Warren County citizens mounted what the Duke Chronicle described as “the largest civil disobedience in the South since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched through Alabama.” It was the first time in American history that citizens were jailed for trying to stop a landfill, from attempting to prevent pollution. In an editorial titled “Dumping on the Poor,” theWashington Post described the Warren County PCB protest movement as “the marriage of environmentalism with civil rights,” and in its 1994 Environmental Equity Draft, the EPA described the PCB protest movement as “the watershed event that led to the environmental equity movement of the 1980’s.” With public pressure mounting, Governor Hunt then pledged to Warren citizens that when technology became available, the state would detoxify the PCB landfill. It was a pledge that would haunt him in his 3rh and 4th terms in office.
Reference: Ferruccio, Deborah, ncpcbarchives.com (2011). [2] The resulting controversy led to the coining of the phrase “environmental racism” and galvanized the environmental justice movement.


In May, 1993, more than 10 years after the Governor promised to detoxify the PCB landfill when it became feasible, and soon after stopping a mega trash landfill to be located near the PCB landfill, citizens learned that there was “an emergency” at the PCB landfill because of nearly a million gallons of water in that landfill that threatened to breach the liner. Speaking and negotiating for Warren County citizens as he had done a decade before, Ken Ferruccio laid out a 5-Point Frameworkfor resolving the PCB landfill crisis and demanded from the Hunt Administration (Governor Hunt’s 3rd of 4 terms in office):

  • The state continue to monitor and maintain the PCB landfill
  • A joint citizen/state committee be formed to mutually address the failures of the PCB landfill
  • The solution to the failed PCB landfill would remain on site
  • Citizens be given independent scientific representation
  • Permanent detoxification of the PCB landfill be the ultimate goal.

Governor Hunt agreed to the Framework and the Joint Warren County/State PCB Landfill Working Group was formed.
For the next decade, as citizens tenaciously attempted to hold the Governor to his public pledge and pressed the legislature to fund an on-site, permanent cleanup that would not require dumping on another community, citizens set environmental justice precedents based on universal principles, and they continued to influence public policies and waste disposal decision-making. Ultimately, however, the state and the EPA protected their own interests and never admitted that the landfill had been leaking or that they were cleaning it up because it failed. The rationale for the cleanup became that Governor Hunt wanted to live up to his detoxification promise. Consequently, the state and the EPA evaded long-term liability for the PCB landfill and hid the truth about EPA’s failed, “dry-tomb” landfills. Citizens got a cleanup, but it was without qualified independent detoxification oversight and the cleanup standards and protection they deserved.
In 1999, the North Carolina General Assembly promised about eight million dollars to go towards clean up with another group would be willing to match it. The EPA was deemed a “match” and the cleanup project was able to move forward. In November 2000 an environmental engineering firm, Earth Tech, was hired to serve as the oversight contractor.

In December, 2000, a public bid was held for the site detoxifying contract. The IT group had the finalizing bid with 13.5 million dollars. Phase I of the clean up process began and the contract was made with the IT Group in March, 2001. The IT group was later bought by the Shaw Group in May 2002 and changed their name to be Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure. The equipment was sent to the landfill in May, 2002 and an open house was held so the community members could view the site before the start-up.
The follow-up tests on the site were performed in 2002. The EPA demonstrated test onto the PCB Landfill in January, 2003. Based on the test results, an interim operations permit was granted in March. The soil treatment was then completed in October, 2003 and in total 81,600 tons of soil was treated for the landfill site. The soil that was treated was the soil that was on the roadside and the soil adjacent to it that had been in the landfill and had been cross-contaminated. The equipment at the site was decontaminated and removed from the site at the end of 2003. The final cost of the cleanup project of the landfill was 17.1 million dollars. (Much of this money paid for various costly studies and administrative costs. It was not the price of the actual detoxification.) The Based Catalyzed Decomposition detoxification was completed in 2004.

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