Environmental Justice

The Land Loss Prevention Project has worked with communities across the state of North Carolina to fight against environmental inequities. In partnership with other  grassroots organizations, we utilize both legal and policy-oriented strategies to advocate with limited resource farmers and communities dealing with landfill siting and hazardous waste.

The term “environmental justice” is used with increasing frequency today. Environmental law as we know it is not, however, synonymous with environmental justice. Environmental justice is a broad concept and is often associated with the push toward equity in environmental protection. As such, environmental justice work involves federal and state environmental laws as well as federal civil rights statutes. This effort encompasses a civil rights and/or social justice focus and is the collective work of both activists and lawyers. The prolonged efforts of activists and other concerned citizens to raise the awareness about the ongoing threats to the environmental health of minority and low-income communities and the physical well being of their residents have blossomed into a movement which is recognized in both law and politics.

Environmental justice issues impact issues such as: access to land, full use of the land, and the ability to develop or retain land. Whether an area is urban or rural, regulatory decisions related to the permitting of facilities (whether the siting, monitoring of releases, or the enforcement of penalties against violators) impact the ownership and use of land. In this way, environmental justice serves as a fulcrum for all the issues: economic development, land retention, and political participation. Wrapped up in one issue, one can see the barriers that affect a community or individuals ability to make use of property, what that property is worth, and how to mobilize to request, or demand, change. Environmental degradation also directly impacts an individual’s right to health, and the landowners’ ability to use land without interference. Access to land that is not contaminated with toxins, or in close proximity to a polluter is intertwined with an individual or community’s ability to sustain itself. As an economic consequence, environmental degradation devalues land, making it difficult to market, and preventing homeowners from realizing the value of their initial investment or even from moving out, as they cannot afford even replacement housing. Once contaminated, land is also more likely to be used for increased development, possibly as site for more industrial facilities.

Minority landowners have borne the burden of many years of racism, in social, political, and economic forms as well as direct physical forms. The basic human rights to life and health are violated by the perpetually polluting industries that operate with seeming impunity in communities made up of residents that are people of color or have low income levels. Environmental racism often forces people off the land (if they have money to move), and it often freezes local economic development.

North Carolina Roots of Environmental Justice

The movement for environmental equity has prominent early roots in North Carolina, beginning with the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County. In 1978, it was discovered that a company in the Research Triangle Park area was dumping oil containing PCBs (Polychlorinated Byphenyls [1] ) along long stretches of roadway in eastern North Carolina. After the extent of the contamination was discovered and over 240 miles of road were dug up, the waste had to be taken somewhere, and the state selected a location in Warren County, North Carolina. The Afton Community in the Shocco Township is a predominantly minority community, with estimates ranging from “sixty-nine (69%) percent non-white”[2] to eighty-four (84%)[3] percent African-American in 1982, with twenty (20%) percent of the residents having incomes below the federal poverty level. This rural community was chosen by the state to house the one hundred and forty two (142) acre landfill [4] , even though none of the contaminated soil was removed from Warren County. Despite numerous challenges to the selection process by residents and activists, construction for the landfill began in 1982. Community members and activists continued their protests and drew national attention to the problem. As the first truckloads of contaminated soil came in, demonstrators laid down in the road and organized other forms of peaceful protest. There were over 500 arrests. [5]

Because of the level of attention that this project engendered, Governor Jim Hunt promised that the landfill would be detoxified if the necessary technology became available. [6] Twenty years after the landfill opened, and after many years of concern that the landfill was leaking, the detoxification began, and was completed in October 2003. [7] Approximately eighty two thousand tons (82,000) of contaminated soil were treated.

National Linkages and Studies

Additionally, the events in Warren County prompted a national inquiry into issues of environmental equity. In 1983, as a result of urging by the Congressional Black Caucus, The United States General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report entitled “Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities,” finding that African American communities were disproportionately burdened in the placement of landfills in EPA’s Region IV (which is comprised of eight southern states). In fact, a 1987 report found that the most significant factor in the siting of hazardous waste landfills was race. [8] As a follow-up to the 1987 report, the United Church of Christ commissioned a second analysis, which was released in March of 2007. [9] The situation has not improved, and the study found that more than 9 million people live within three kilometers of one of the nation’s 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities. More than 5.1 million people of color live in a neighborhood that has a commercial hazardous waste facility. [10]

The environmental justice movement addresses, in part, what has come to be known as environmental racism. Reverend Benjamin Chavis, Jr., a North Carolina native, is credited with coining the term in 1987 and defines it as follows:

Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policymaking. It is racial discrimination in the enforcement of regulations and laws. It is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries. It is racial discrimination in the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color. And, it is racial discrimination in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decision-making boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. [11]

The movement’s focus on racial discrimination does not, however, suggest that the movement has as its goal the redistribution of disadvantage. Rather, Deeohn Ferris describes it as seeking a healthier environment for all people – “[t]he keystone of this quest for justice is equal protection, not equal pollution.” [12]

A Movement for Equity

Leaders in the movement for environmental justice gathered in Washington, DC in October of 1991 at the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. As a result, the group developed a set of principles designed to define and describe environmental justice. [13] Highlighting the rights of workers, children, Tribes, and communities that are overburdened with toxic facilities, this document is a foundation for work that continues today. As the movement as progressed, these leaders are seeking holistic improvements that combine areas of work not traditionally united: community development becomes a part of work for environmental justice, preservation of land becomes key to work against climate change, and all of the above are becoming a single movement. Intertwined with all of these is a focus on racial, gender, and socio-economic equity and access to decision-makers.

Additional resources on environmental justice:



LLPP's booklet "Ten Ways To Save Your Land" is now in its 7th edition. The booklet gives a broad overview of typical legal issues that landowners, farmers, and homeowners may confront. It's available here for free.


Heir Propertyis one of the driving forces behind the precipitous decline of land ownership in the African American community.


Learn how LLPP is working to promote Environmental Justice in North Carolina


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