I am always surprised that I am still surprised at how unbelievably narrow-visioned and short-sighted we are as an American culture who continues to accept and put into office politicians and legislators who promote and pass regulations, statutes, and legislation that institutionalize and legalize pollution, pollution that is putting counties, states, the nation, and the planet in peril.
But then, I’m not really surprised by the way citizens continue to vote corrupted officials into office who base economic development, especially here in North Carolina, on polluting industries that have difficulty locating elsewhere. There is a reason for the phenomenon known as “dumping on Dixie,” (see: Robert Bullard’s book Dumping on Dixie).
Over the past thirty-five years, both Democratic and Republican politicians have operated as if North Carolina is a second-class state, poor, desperate, and willing to accept industry’s toxic and radioactive crumbs. They have viewed themselves as overseers of a state historically “situated in a valley between two mountains of conceit — Virginia and South Carolina,” of a state that must take what it can get economically, however extreme the risks. And they have largely convinced the public of this position.
In the 1980’s Democratic Governor James B. Hunt, Jr. and the North Carolina General Assembling attempted to center the state’s economic development on waste disposal industries that were looking for a dumping grounds for the massive volumes of solid, toxic, and radioactive waste being generated along the Eastern Seaboard, in the Midwest, and elsewhere. The Governor’s message to polluting industries was loud and clear in 1982 when he used nearly a million dollars of National Guard and State Police forces to bury toxic PCBs in a landfill in Warren County on a marginal site chosen for political and not scientific reasons: “Our state government will take communities as we need them.”
The message was also clear that North Carolina would be a pollution-friendly state when the North Carolina General Assembly passed the 1981 Hazardous Waste Management Act, which gives NC governors the right to override local opposition to waste disposal facilities, thus making the siting of high-risk waste disposal facilities — landfills and incinerators — easier in North Carolina than in other states.
Yet, as North Carolina politicians put their own state in the cross-hairs for waste disposal, in the 1980’s and 1990’s citizens fought back. In Warren County, where the state’s plan to base economic development on waste expansion was first unveiled, citizens stopped Waste Management, Inc., from building a national, commercial toxic waste landfill in the county. A few years later, citizens in Granville and Halifax Counties stopped Thermyl-Kem from building a toxic waste incinerator in their counties. Then, citizens in numerous counties, including Warren, Franklin, Wilson, Bertie, Person, and others, fought commercial mega trash landfills, some successfully, some not. And throughout the 1990’s, citizens fought and successfully stopped the state from Governor Hunt’s plan to “host” the Southeast Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact by providing a nuclear waste landfill outside of Raleigh that would have been open for national and international business, thus bringing nuclear waste into the state by truck, rail, and ship.
Now, after decades of environmental abuse backed and sanctioned by an insidious political elite of both parties, our state government is in the hands of a Republican Governor and legislature that openly promote pollution and injustice and profit for a few. They are backed by right-wing, Tea Party extremists who have convinced North Carolinians that environmental regulations are costly to industries, that if we want economic development here in our desperate state, we have to gut regulations and let the polluters have the state as their own.
This past year, for instance, legislators paved the way for massive dumping on North Carolina, when in a late-evening vote, just after Moral Monday protesters had been arrested and taken to jail, legislators passed Senate Bill 328 which proliferates mega trash landfills by relaxing numerous protective landfill regulations. For example, the bill eliminates the requirement for regular landfill maintenance and repeals the requirement that operators have a fund of at least $2 million to pay for fines or corrective action in case of contamination” — even though the EPA Federal Register states that all landfills leak [pg. 111128,29].
Senate Bill 328 provides exemptions for oversight of leachate collection systems designed to capture water inside landfills before it leaches out. Lawmakers recognize since it is well-known that even the EPA acknowledges that all landfills leak, they need to write legislation that doesn’t require that landfill operators track the leakage.
With weakened regulatory requirements for waste disposal, Senate Bill 328 thus reduces liability and costs for polluters and ensures the continuation of the companies’ license to operate, even while their landfills continue to pollute.
So, what can we do now that Senate Bill 328 was passed? What can we do to stop the dumping on Dixie, on North Carolina, on communities anywhere which are targeted for high-risk industries, communities who refuse to build their future on a toxic lie that will inevitably reveal itself, as is the case in Charleston, West Virginia, where last week’s chemical spill has decimated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people?
We can fight back politically, as citizens across the state did when they formed grassroots organizations in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and we will, working to help one another — from the mountains, to the Piedmont, to the Coastal Plains — protecting one targeted community, one county, one region, one state, one neighbor’s state at a time.