Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The African-American families embroiled in litigation against toxic animal-feeding operations join a long history of black communities fighting for the right to their health in the Carolinas.
For more coverage of environmental justice in the Carolinas, see “Mapping Where Environmental Justice is Most Threatened in the Carolinas.”
There has been much deserved panic about the thousands of pigs and open-air waste lagoons in the path of Hurricane Florence, mostly in North Carolina. While the state is still waiting for floodwaters to recede so that farmers can assess the damage, the North Carolina Pork Council has reported that one of the waste lagoons that breached since Florence made landfall is in Duplin County (pictured below).
Duplin County is the same county that happens to be at the center of litigation involving hundreds of African-American residents and the hundreds more hog farms located in their vicinity. Civil rights attorneys sued Smithfield Farms, and its hog-production division Murphy-Brown, in 2015 for their failure to properly regulate and control the toxic odorous emissions coming from those farms and lagoons, which Smithfield owns. A recent study found that communities in southeastern North Carolina, where Duplin County is located and where animal feeding operations are concentrated, “had higher ... infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia” along with the lowest life expectancy levels in the state.
The black residents who live close to these operations have for decades endured headaches, nausea, and vomiting spells as the smells from the hog-waste lagoons travel to their homes, many of which are less than a mile away. Black families there have caught gusts of the actual pig manure from farmers spraying it on their fields as fertilizer as well.
There are currently 26 lawsuits that have been filed against the pig farms for this, and so far, courts have sided with the black families in the first three of them. The latest verdict in August resulted in a federal jury awarding $473.5 million to six black families living near one of the farms. The prior two lawsuits resulted in awards of $50 million and $25 million to separate groups of plaintiffs.
The state and the pork/farm lobby have not responded kindly: “From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday,” reads a statement from Smithfield.
The pork and farm industries successfully lobbied state lawmakers to pass legislation that not only limits the punitive damages from these lawsuits, but also limits when lawsuits like this can be filed at all against the agricultural industry in the future. On top of that, black Duplin community members say they’ve had to fend off harassment and intimidation from the farmers and the pork companies backing them.
“For the first time in three decades, we’ve had contract growers confronting people in our community and we’ve never had that before,” said Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “As a result of [the multi-million punitive damage awards], the industry got pissed off and went into all-out war on our communities, posting signs saying ‘Stop complaining or put down the bacon,’ and holding public rallies calling out members of our community. They are pitting the farmers against their neighbors.”
This shows how black families were living with environmental hazardry far before this week’s hurricanes came ashore. Florence only made it messier—at least 21 of the open-air pig-feces lagoons in North Carolina were overtopped and spilled over due to Hurricane Florence. What makes Duplin County’s story more disturbing, though, is how unoriginal it is.
This is just one of many areas throughout the Carolinas where people of color, and African Americans in particular, have wrestled for decades with questions of: Why it’s controversial that they should desire to live with clean air and water; why it’s too much to ask that governments invest in infrastructure that can protect them from disasters; why their post-disaster recoveries have to be so arduous compared to others; and, why government officials won’t acknowledge the racism found in environmental policies.
In addition to Duplin County, there dozens of other areas of major and long-running environmental justice significance in the Carolinas, that are perennially imperiled by natural, man-made, and racism-made disasters. A report titled “The State of Exclusion” from the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights provides a comprehensive accounting of the dangers faced in many of these areas. The historical narratives of these cities and communities constitute the core canon of environmental justice. A few of those are mapped below:
While Warren County is widely considered environmental justice’s ground zero, one could argue that that distinction really belongs to Princeville, where from the beginning of its very existence, in 1865, African Americans had to develop a city that was resilient to both flooding and the mob violence of white people who were dead set against the formation of a black metropolis. Princeville residents had to develop that kind of fortitude for their city if for no other reason that there was hardly anywhere else they could go.
“Early Princeville residents had to endure harsh swampland to survive,” writes Richard M. Mizelle Jr. for Open Rivers. “Their existence in this space was not a matter of chance or choice, but instead the discarded and unwanted space was what former slaveholders allowed them to occupy.”
For Princeville and many of the other disaster-prone communities listed above, these were not necessarily the places where people wanted to live, but where they were forced to settle because of rabid racism. And those areas happened to be in swampy, low-lying lands that were vulnerable to flooding, or terrains that were made vulnerable by the placement of toxic pollution-spreading facilities around it. For these towns and cities, the discussion around environmental justice is not based on place, but rather where these African Americans were placed.
Today, the proportion of people of color living within three miles of a swine farm is 1.5 times higher than for whites in the state, according to a Title VI Civil Rights Act complaint filed in 2014 by Earthjustice and several local environmental organizations. The complaint notes that African Americans alone are 1.54 times more likely to live within three miles of a swine facility than white North Carolinians are.
The hog farms that have been ordered to shell out for negatively impacting black communities’ health in Duplin County have argued that these families could simply move somewhere else. And maybe they’d have a point if those families arrived in Duplin County after the farms and lagoons were already set up. But those families owned and settled the land well before the first hogs got there. The black families have a multi-generational vested interest in remaining there—desiring not to break up their friend and family networks, which many of them depend on to survive. Their ancestors may not have had a choice about where they located to, but the hog farms did. And those farmers chose to locate near black communities, with the state’s permission.
The history of environmental justice is paved with stories just like Duplin County’s, where government officials at some level permitted the placement of a toxic site near a black, Latino, or Native American residential area. The same goes for government officials who made policy decisions that unnecessarily but tragically imperiled communities of color—think the Flint water crisis. The question today is: What obligation do government agencies have to environmental-justice communities, considering that history? This question is especially critical in the climate change era, when hurricanes and floods are promised to occur more frequently and furiously.
There have been attempts to answer this question lately through legislation and litigation, as exemplified by the string of lawsuits against the swine companies in Duplin County. However, Devon Hall, program manager for the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) told Scalawag that he doesn’t believe that those lawsuits will be enough to change the behavior of the hog industry, nor the climate-change-denying North Carolina state legislature. He’s hoping that the federal Title VI civil rights complaint will serve as a better enforcer. Others are hoping lawsuits will also lead to better caps and linings on coal-ash waste ponds, to protect cities like Belews Creek. However, Adam Colette, program director for the North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance, says the state seems to keep coming up with even more ways to invite environmental devastation to over-burdened communities.
“Coal-ash ponds, hog farms, and industrial logging are all concentrated in the same communities, so when we see the impacts of climate change, like Hurricane Florence, those communities are much slower to recover because of the extraction industries that already exist,” said Colette. “But also, from the biomass industry we’ve had a massive increase in clear cutting of wetlands, which are natural flood protections for these communities, and that’s making it even more difficult to rebound and be more resilient.”
Meanwhile, they’re fighting those battles as they fight their way out of the slog of recovery from Hurricane Florence. Many of these places had barely recovered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network said that the state’s relief efforts for Matthew were so “disrespectful” that she and other grassroots activists had to assemble their own squads to build a recovery apparatus for black families living in the most heavily impacted areas.
“When [recovery/relief agencies] distributed goods to the people impacted by the storm, they didn’t do it in respectful ways,” said Muhammad. “They just brought it and dumped it in piles and made people sift through it. So we set up distribution centers to sort the materials out and grouped it in categories so that people could easily access what they needed without feeling like scavengers.”
Similar grassroots recovery and relief efforts were also mobilized ahead of Hurricane Florence. Under the banner A Just Florence Recovery, a group of social justice organizations in North Carolina—among them, the North Carolina Climate Justice Collective, the NC Environmental Justice Network, and the Southern Vision Alliance—banded together to assist with evacuation and, now, recovery and relief efforts. They’ve partnered with veterans of prior coastal disasters to ensure that federal and philanthropic funding don’t get exclusively channeled to the usual relief NGOs, like Red Cross, that have let vulnerable populations down in the past. Just as important, they’ll be fighting to sustain the historically significant environmental justice communities across the Carolinas—making sure that they aren’t permanently taken off the map.
“What we’ve discovered from going door-to-door helping folks after hurricanes is that the recovery process is designed to shut out the most impacted communities: low-income and people of color,” said Muhammad. “Our community members just want to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and not be made sick when they step outside.”