N.C. environmental injustice: ’We’re living with a ticking time bomb’

Naeema Muhammad

Naeema Muhammad

The following interview with Naeema Muhammad, interim director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, was conducted by Durham, N.C., WW correspondent Peter Gilbert.

What is Environmental Justice?

“Environmental Justice is the right to a safe, healthy, productive and sustainable environment for all, in which ‘environment’ is considered in its totality to include the ecological (biological), physical (natural and built), social, and political aesthetic, and the economic environment. EJ refers to the conditions in which such a right can be freely exercised whereby individual and group identities, needs and dignities are preserved, fulfilled and respected in a way that provides for self-actualization and personal and community empowerment. EJ acknowledges environmental injustice as the past and present state of affairs, and expresses the social-political objectives needed to address them.”

What is the history of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network?

“One spark for the NCEJN was the citing of a PCB [polychlorinated biphenyl, a toxic organic pollutant] landfill in Warren County, which led to massive community protests. This kicked off the environmental movement in North Carolina in African-American communities, low-income communities and communities of color, which for the first time began to pay attention to environmental struggles.

“After that, the African-American EJ Action Network held a conference at North Carolina Central University, where it was decided that regional networks were needed. Of the eight that were founded, the NCEJN is the only one that is still functioning.

“Through our work, we began to understand all the environmental issues facing these communities: health, water, air, land value and quality of life. Pieces you never thought about — you just assumed it was all fine. Before you just breathed the air; you never paid attention. You never connected the smells as threats to our health.”

What is the role of the network in the broader movement?

“One of the things we do is help people look beyond their own conditions, to connect what’s going on in their communities to systemic problems. One example was after Hurricane Floyd hit eastern North Carolina. People were really crushed, not talking to each other and feeling isolated, like the flood only happened to them. We brought people together and they began to see beyond themselves. Then it wasn’t an ‘I’ problem, but a system that was denying the Black communities that had been flooded.

“People saw a difference between how they and the white people were being treated. They were still being shuffled around, living in temporary housing, when the white folks were back home. They saw that the system was designed to shut people out — it was a systemic, not an individual problem. This is what we try to help communities see — that theirs is not an individual problem but that this is a system designed to exclude, push out, deny and oppress.”

I hear that the network is having a summit next month. What is the goal of the summit?

“October 17 and 18 is our 16th annual EJ summit. This year’s theme is ‘Uniting for Justice.’ The purpose is to bring communities, government, researchers, students and academicians together. Look at the state of environmental injustice in North Carolina. The main feature is to bring communities together under one roof to talk and learn from each other. The summit brings people out of isolation and a one-issue mindset.”

One of the panels at the summit is titled “energy injustice” — and there is a big national march around climate change coming up in New York City. How is climate change an EJ issue?

“Climate change, or energy injustice as we call it, is an EJ issue when we talk about all the hazardous sites in our communities, like the coal ash spills here at the hands of Duke Power. The way I always tell folks — in my mind, whenever anyone says ‘climate justice’ I ask, ‘How can you continue to talk about that and not talk about environmental injustice?’ When we get these storms, massive flooding, fires everywhere, hurricanes and tornados, if one of those storms hits an environmental injustice community — this is a ticking time bomb. These communities have a much higher risk because you got landfills everywhere, CAFO’s [confined animal feeding operations] everywhere — all in harm’s way if a major storm comes through here. People’s lives are destroyed — they are made sicker than they already are, or actually killed.

“In 1999, when Hurricane Floyd flooded eastern North Carolina, millions of hogs died and went out into the water supply. With that went all the hog waste from the lagoons, which are nothing but open air cesspits. This directly impacted the majority African-American communities in eastern North Carolina. The hog capital of the world, Duplin County, has 2.2 million hogs — 45 per person in the county. Adjacent Sampson County has 32 per person. It is being made worse now with the poultry industry coming back — to the same Black communities, communities of color and low-income communities that are housing all these hogs.

I saw that the network is part of a Title VI complaint alleging racial discrimination related to these hog farms. Can you tell us more about that?

“The NCEJN, along with REACH [Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help] and the Waterkeepers Alliance, decided to file a Title VI complaint against the state Department of the Environment and Natural Resources because in March of 2014 they renewed the permits for all the hog farms in North Carolina all at once, even though we had informed them about the health and environmental impact that these facilities were having on the communities living nearby. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs or activities receiving federal money. The complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights lays out how permitting these facilities has a discriminatory impact on African-American, Native American, and Latino communities. For more information go to necjn.wordpress.com.”