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"I've visited folks and sat on their front porches on a summer evening, and smelled the stench, and it's not fair that one community has carried the cost and burden, when the rest of the county—myself included, has benefited, so I do think we need to identify the negative impacts and come up with a plan."
The data on old, unlined dumps and chemical spill and disposal sites is staggering.
According to a 2010 DENR report presented to the N.C. General Assembly, the state has cataloged 2,982 chemical spill or disposal sites and old, unlined dumps or landfills that are not being addressed by other environmental authorities. Of this number, 85 percent—or 2,537 —"still require work to address their hazards," the report stated.
The hazards are numerous and jeopardize the neighborhoods adjacent to the landfills. Based on EPA and DENR data, most of North Carolina's unlined landfills can be expected to have groundwater contamination. "These landfills pose threats in that contaminated groundwater can reach drinking water wells and explosive methane ... vapors [off-gassing from the waste and contaminated groundwater] can seep into structures on or near the landfill," the report reads.
The report contains other troubling statistics:
Of the landfills inspected, more than three-quarters are within 1,000 feet of a house, school, day care, church or drinking water source.
There are 189 landfills that have drinking water wells within 500 feet; another 62 have drinking water wells located between 500 and 1,000 feet of the landfill.
Thirty-four landfills have homes constructed over them, and 79 have buildings other than residences on top of them.
Many other landfills have sensitive uses, such as parks on or near the landfill.
In many cases, it's unclear what materials were dumped in these unlined landfills, which operated in an era when there were few regulations on disposal. In Greensboro, the unlined E.H. Glass site was filled with more than 8,000 gallons of Vicks cough and nasal decongestant products, according to the Guilford County Department of Public Health; the county used it as an informal dump. During World War II, the U.S. Army discarded trash at the site as well.
Since this site was never licensed to accept waste, and the type of garbage dumped there is unknown, the EPA and DENR listed it as an Inactive Hazardous Site, defined as "properties contaminated with hazardous substances."
The E.H. Glass site is near the White Street neighborhood. Although the homes are on city sewer and water, residents are worried about the contaminants in the soil, groundwater and air. In 2009, the North Carolina Public Health Department issued a report, "Cancer Incidence Analysis for Guilford County," based on 4,250 recorded cases of cancer in and around the White Street neighborhood from 1990–2006. The study found that the number of pancreatic cancer cases was two times higher than expected. The number of multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells that attack the bone marrow) cases was more two times times higher.
However, the report concludes, "While the pancreatic cancer rates in the study area are elevated, the design of the study does not allow for conclusions about the link between the cancer rates in the study area and exposure to the landfill."
The Guilford County Department of Public Health followed up with its own report, stating, "we conclude that there is no health risk to residents living near the E.H. Glass property and that further investigation, including community surveys, is unwarranted."
The county health department could not pinpoint a cause for the higher cancer rates, according to Mark Smith, staff epidemiologist for Guilford County, but noted that African-Americans have higher rates of pancreatic cancer in general, and that the neighborhood is largely African-American.
More than 7,550 people live within a one-mile radius of the landfills; 85 percent are African-American or Latino, according to 2008 U.S. Census data.
Just blocks away from the E.H. Glass dump lies the White Street landfill, which the city plans to expand. To stop the expansion, concerned residents have formed Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice (CEEJ), led by Goldie Wells, 68, a retired elementary schoolteacher and former Greensboro City Council member. She has lived less than a mile from the landfill since 1971.
"We've gone before the City Council—myself as a board member—then as a resident," she says. "We attend every meeting faithfully, and we speak up, and yet our pleas to stop this landfill expansion have been ignored time and time again."
Located in northeastern Guilford County, the White Street landfill and waste site has been in the neighborhood since 1943. Because parts of it were built before state regulations required landfills to be lined, in two portions trash went directly into the ground without a buffer to keep hazardous chemicals from leaking into the groundwater.
Another lined portion stopped receiving household trash in 2006, but is still permitted to accept municipal household solid waste.
Yvonne Johnson served on City Council for 13 years before becoming Greensboro's first African-American mayor, from 2007–2009. She has lived in the White Street community for more than 30 years, and she strongly opposes the landfill expansion.
"Those of us who have lived here and remember when the landfill was open can attest to the stench and nauseous air quality we lived with when that trash was getting trucked into the landfill every day," Johnson says. "This will interrupt my neighborhood's quality of life and the council can say this is about saving money, but the cost of human life and health is greater then the money reopening the landfill might save."
On May 31, CEEJ sued the city and later received a 10-day restraining order and a 10-day extension to stop the Greensboro City Council from signing a contract to reopen the White Street Landfill to municipal solid waste.
Chris Brook, attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing the community for free, says that the city has not followed state protocol in selecting a new landfill site, including holding public hearings, reviewing socioeconomic data and impacts or considering an alternative site. Brook argued that reopening the landfill requires the same procedure involved with siting and permitting a new landfill.
Jim Clark, an assistant city attorney, argued before the court that the city isn't selecting a site, "we're selecting a contractor," according to the News and Record in Greensboro.
But Superior Court Judge Patrice Hinnant told the city, "Put the brakes on ... try to get it right the first time ... don't rush to do something that has the potential to create unnecessary litigation," she was quoted as saying.
Goldie Wells remains hopeful. "I'm like those crazy people in the line of the tornado. This is my home and my neighbors' home, and we are going to fight this as best we can, and I'm not going to leave."
Is there a solution? Can environmental equality and protection become a mandate instead of a privilege? And if regulatory agencies are not ensuring equal access to clean air and water, what can these burdened communities do?
Florine Bell, who lives in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood near Roanoke Rapids, was new to community activism when she started advocating for the area. "I didn't know anything about harmful waste disposal," she said, "but I soon learned by conducting as much research as possible at the local and state level of government, and research revealed that most waste disposal cases in minority neighborhoods created environmentally discriminatory situations involving the civil rights of its citizens."
Bell studied similar communities in North Carolina, to see how their leaders addressed the problems. "A pattern soon developed that consisted of organizing citizens most likely to be affected by the harmful waste," she says. "It was crucial to begin opposing the process by attending and speaking at any and all public meetings."
Bell held public forums to educate people about the consequences of living near waste disposal areas, and sent letters to the media and local and state officials to bring attention to the issues Lincoln Heights was facing.
In 2003, Frank Warren, former president of Greene Citizens for Responsible Growth, and his neighbors successfully fought Greene County's siting of a new regional solid waste landfill less than a mile from Castoria, a predominantly African-American neighborhood six miles outside the incorporated town limits of Snow Hill. Massive hog farms and a demolition debris landfill are already located in the Greene County community.
Warren offers simple advice. "Organize, organize, organize; get people together, meet in churches, that's where folks are, find some hell-raising preacher that can get up there and whip the crowd into a froth, and don't stop until you've been heard."
North Carolina is forecast to generate 16.5 million tons of waste annually by 2031, according to Ellen Lorscheider of the DENR planning and programs branch. Statewide, there is enough room in landfills to handle the flow of trash for 30 years.
"It is always reassuring to know that there is at least 20 years of capacity for waste to be able to go to landfills," Lorscheider adds.
Whether more waste will be dumped at the Orange County Landfill depends on decisions by county commissioners and DENR. At the community center in the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood, it's late afternoon, and a handful of schoolchildren have arrived at the center to play or work on their homework in the computer lab.
"When I was a child there were apple orchards and creeks we could dip our hands into and take a drink of water," Caldwell recalls. "We'd leave the house at six in the morning and come back home at dinnertime. It was our playground and it was the most important thing we had. And now? Now you have none of that."
He is saddened that family land won't be passed on to his children and grandchildren. "Why would I want them to stay here?" he says. "You look across the street and families have water, and yet you're taking your clothes to the Laundromat because your water tastes bad, smells bad and is a muddy color. Who would want to come back to that?"