A Roadmap for Environmental Justice

    • December 20, 2013

The Rogers-Eubanks community in Orange County, N.C., bears the scars of the nation's centuries-long struggle with issues of race. At its center are Rogers Road and Eubanks Road, and not far from their intersection is a small school founded by a former slave that once provided the only formal education to children in the neighborhood.

Not more than five miles outside the bustling university town of Chapel Hill, the unincorporated area lacks much of the infrastructure of modern American cities and suburbs, including sidewalks, street lights, and storm-water management. Many of the predominantly Black community’s residents draw their drinking water from small wells, and use septic systems for sewage, even though public water and sewage systems are nearby. Sewer pipes were never connected to their homes, and few can afford the cost of connecting to the public system now.

In the early 1970s, Chapel Hill bought land in the community and opened an 80-acre, unlined, solid waste landfill, overcoming opposition with promises of infrastructure improvements for the community. “We want to put a landfill out here," one resident remembers Chapel Hill's mayor saying. "[I]f you’ll allow us to do it, we’re going to pave your road. When the landfill is full, we’re going to turn it into a recreation center for you.” The landfill came, but the promises went unfulfilled. When the landfill reached capacity a decade later, instead of closing it and building a recreation center, the county chose to expand it.

The net result was a politically weak community saddled with a landfill and all the truck traffic, odors, pests, and endangered water quality that go with it.

In an article in the Journal of Environmental Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program alumnus Sacoby Wilson, PhD, describes the community's largely successful efforts over the past six years to claim control of its destiny. “In many ways,” he says, “this is a classic example of environmental ‘injustice.’ Certain communities, because of their racial and ethnic makeup and their lack of economic or political power are either targeted for environmental hazards or become differentially burdened by environmental hazards, including such locally unwanted land uses as landfills.” Wilson’s article tracks a meticulous community-wide effort to gather data about water quality, followed by a push to convert that data into political leverage.

Reaching Out, Creating Partnerships

The community's fortunes began to change when the Rogers-Eubank Neighborhood Association (RENA), in partnership with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the West End Revitalization Association in neighboring Alamance County, applied for and was granted nonprofit status, Wilson says. That, in turn, led to other partnerships, with scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and student members of a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Together, the groups launched a push to test water quality at the taps of homes in the community—an initiative that required overcoming some residents’ worries that they might be fined or otherwise harmed if the water quality was deemed poor. Once the testing proceeded, the results were stark. The majority of tested homes that relied on wells had water with elevated levels of fecal coliforms and/or turbidity, and all had elevated levels of a variety of chemicals and minerals that were not present in public water supplies, some of which were thought to have leached from the landfill.

Septic systems in the community were also an issue. The systems of two-thirds of the tested homes exhibited signs of failure—including sewer backups into homes or other problems.

As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wilson had worked with the state's environmental justice network. "The health consequences from the lack of safe, potable water are part of a bigger picture," he says. "Some residents are exposed to multiple stressors—some biological like pathogens in the water, some social like poverty and crime. So there's a cumulative burden that creates a differential risk, and the health effects flow from it. It could be asthma from the diesel pollution of trash trucks; it could be cancer from chemicals in their water; it could be intestinal diseases from fecal microbes in their drinking water. There's a lot of work being done to understand the individual factors, but not a lot of work looking at the intersection of those factors."

By developing the data to demonstrate the depth of the problem, RENA succeeded in getting the attention of local policy-makers. This June, the solid waste landfill was finally closed to new waste. In addition, the county board has voted to begin a pollution-mitigation process, and secured federal grants to start connecting some homes to public water and sewer lines.

As Wilson and colleagues write in a commentary accompanying their study, "RENA successes include securing a partial ban on garbage trucks driving through the community, increasing law enforcement presence to reduce illegal dumping, reducing speed limits on local roads, obtaining limited neighborhood bus service, [and] blocking the siting of [a] solid waste transfer station in the community.... Orange County Board of Commissioners also voted to set aside $650,000 to build a new permanent community center in the neighborhood. This shows that RENA members are starting to be involved as meaningful contributors to policy-making, whereas in the past their voice was not heard and did not lead to fair representation of the community’s concerns."

"The lack of basic amenities is a major environmental justice issue," Wilson says, "and there are rural, semi-urban communities across the nation—pre-New Deal communities—that don’t have publicly regulated sewer and water infrastructure, and are overburdened with coal plants, hazardous waste sites, landfills, and leaking underwater storage tanks. RENA’s work provides a roadmap for communities to use community-university partnerships and community-engaged research to address environmental injustice and environmental health disparities."