At Sampson County event, Eastern NC residents ask Cooper for protection from pollution

Adam Wagner/The News & Observer

Bobby Jones said he gave state regulators good reason to deny World Cat an air quality permit for its proposed boat-building facility in Greenville.

There was the similar facility a mile away. There was the fact that World Cat operated without state required permits for more than a year, sending unauthorized pollution into the air. And there was the Head Start facility directly across the street from the plant, part of a largely Black and Hispanic community in the area around the facility.

None of it mattered, Jones told representatives of Gov. Roy Cooper’s office and environmental justice advocates during a Saturday listening session. Despite Jones’ arguments, the state Department of Environmental Quality in Cooper’s administration approved the permit.

Jones’ story was one of more than a dozen shared Saturday during the listening session at First Baptist Church in Clinton. The event was designed to provide Cooper’s office with feedback that could shape a future executive order addressing environmental justice concerns in the state.

“Clearly the big polluters have an advantage. They get literally what they want. They’re protected, and they’re provided some very good service in comparison to us as a community,” said Jones, the founder of the Down East Coal Ash Environmental and Social Justice Coalition.

Others shared concerns about the proliferation of hog and chicken operations throughout Eastern North Carolina. Several farmworker advocates discussed how pesticide application hurts workers, alleging that the regulatory system fails to provide adequate protection.

Denise Robinson said she moved back to Sampson County after living in Cary for 40 years, planning to do some work on her family’s home.

Robinson was surprised to be awoken before the sun rose by trucks carrying trash to the Sampson County landfill, the largest in North Carolina.

“It goes on all day,” said Robinson, who now works as an office manager for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Community Action Network.

And then, Robinson said, the farmer whose field borders her property started using chicken manure as fertilizer. Once the manure was spread, she said, it created an unbearable stench that permeated the area.

“The smell was not only outside, it was inside the house,” Robinson said, describing how she lit every candle she owns in hopes of overpowering the sour manure odor.

Larry Sutton, president of the Sampson County NAACP, was the first person to provide comment at Saturday’s meeting. Sutton asked for a moment of silence for people who have died from health effects believed to be caused by the county’s landfill.

“In some way, we need to look back and remediate the conditions that have caused so much suffering and hardship in the Snow Hill community,” Sutton said.

Cumulative impacts and executive orders?

Cooper’s Executive Order 246, signed last January, hinted that he might use future executive action to address environmental justice concerns — and the reality that polluting facilities are more likely to be located in areas with higher proportions of American Indian, Black, Hispanic and nonwhite people.

The executive order also provided a definition of cumulative impacts, or the idea that people are impacted by multiple sources of pollution around them.

In considering most air and water permits, DEQ regulators typically account only for the pollution from the facility seeking a new permit or renewal. They do not use regulations to account for whether pollution from the new facility could combine with that from nearby facilities to provide too much exposure to people who live and work nearby.

Doctors quickly try to figure out what drugs their patients are taking, said Rania Masri, the co-director of organizing and policy at the N.C. Environmental Justice Network. That, Masri said, is a logical effort to figure out what a patient might be exposed to and interacting with.

“Why is it so radical and revolutionary to ask of our governor and of every single representative that claims to represent us to direct state agencies to implement cumulative impact before they give permits? Not doing that is the same as a doctor not asking us what other drugs are we taking,” Masri said.

Cooper’s office intends to hold at least one more listening session, focused on the western part of the state.

‘Do the most’

Those present at Saturday’s meeting also addressed North Carolina’s political realities.

Republicans, who have proven quick to loosen environmental regulations and slow to add them, are one vote away from a veto-proof majority in the legislature.

Cooper, a Democrat, is term-limited and must leave office at the end of 2024. Several comments on Saturday suggested that the calendar means action needs to happen sooner than later.

Keeping pollution from overburdening low-income, Black or American Indian communities and those with people of color, and investing in those communities, is simply following federal law, said Ashley Daniels, an environmental justice advocate from Wilmington.

Daniels did not provide specific policy recommendations to Cooper’s office, but suggested that it take the maximum action possible to address longstanding inequities.

“The strongest structures you can build or support the communities themselves in building, build that. With the time that you have, do the most. Do the most to serve the North Carolinians that have been protected the least,” Daniels said.

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.