WARRENTON, N.C. — Growing up in Goldsboro, Michael Regan heard his parents talk about the 1982 Warren County protests against a PCB landfill, demonstrations that played a pivotal role in establishing the environmental justice movement in the United States.
On Saturday, Regan — now the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — stood in front of the Warren County Courthouse, just miles from that protest site, to announce that the federal agency is growing its environmental justice efforts, backed by $3 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act.
During a Saturday morning interview, Regan told The News & Observer, “In addition to being included in the policy and regulatory development, this office will be able to push resources to these communities and have these community-oriented solutions matched with their participation to hopefully give EPA and the communities a better shot at protecting those who have been disproportionately impacted for far too long.”
Environmental justice is the idea that everyone deserves the same protection against environmental hazards like climate change and pollution. It also contains the idea that everyone should be able to play a part in the process that shapes the environment where they live and work.
In 1982, North Carolina started to dump soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in an Afton soybean field. A diverse group of Warren County residents and activists pushed back, questioning why the state had decided to store chemicals whose health risks had already resulted in a domestic production ban in a community made up of a high proportion of Black people who mostly drank well water.
A years-long battle over PCB contamination in rural North Carolina ended in 1982, culminating in six weeks of protests against siting a landfill containing soil laced with the contaminant in Warren County. Over the course of the protest, local residents joined members of national groups like the NAACP and United Church of Christ to lay in front of the dump trucks, trying to impede their progress.
Police made more than 500 arrests during the protests. Then Gov. Jim Hunt pushed forward with the dumping, but pledged that the state would eventually clean the site if technology became available.
That cleanup was completed in 2004, according to The Warren Record.
Regan, who previously served as a secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, was surrounded by many who participated in the 1982 Warren County protests as he made Saturday’s announcement.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of giants. I have to say that I’m especially proud as a North Carolinian to know that this national movement started right here in my home state,” Regan told The News & Observer.