WARRENTON — By the time it was U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan’s turn to speak Saturday, the EPA’s top official quipped of his place as headliner, “I don’t know who put me last on this agenda.”
A Goldsboro native, Regan was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to his position last March and was in Warrenton to announce the establishment of a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights within EPA, amid what has been a year-long commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Warren County PCB landfill protests.
Last to take the podium, Regan was introduced by longtime civil rights leader Ben Chavis, followed on the Courthouse Square stage by the likes of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield and the Rev. William Barber II, former president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and current co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Main Street traffic was shut down for the event that drew environmental-justice leaders from around the country and also celebrated the local residents that are credited with “birthing a movement.”
Saturday’s program felt like a rally, reunion and revival rolled into one. It was a call to action as much as anything, with some of the speakers providing illustrations of current environmental inequities. Regan urged younger generations to follow the example of the Warren County protesters and others around the country in fighting for justice in all of its forms.
“These are the people who have dedicated their lives to standing up and speaking out against racism and injustice and inequality,” Regan said. “And they are finally being heard at the highest levels of the land, from Warren County to the White House.”
Following Regan’s speech, the EPA administrator was joined by Dollie Burwell and others for a ceremonial signing and photo op, marking the start of a new EPA chapter in the same county where Burwell was among the many 40 years ago that protested the dumping of PCB-laced material in an Afton landfill.
Burwell was one of the tough acts Regan had to follow. Her name has become synonymous with the environmental justice movement and she was seated in the front row Saturday next to former U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton.
“Today’s announcement is another way of honoring the birth of the environmental justice movement,” Butterfield said, “that began in this county 40 years ago with people like Dollie Burwell, who worked on my staff for almost 15 years and Congresswoman Clayton’s staff for many years, and Dr. Chavis, and the Rev. William Kearney and so, so many other individuals.”
“As a child of Lowndes County, Alabama, being here in Warren County means the world to me,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. “When I was in that hallway watching all of these powerful [environmental justice] warriors walk through — superheroes — if this was a Marvel Comics movie, we’d have all the superheroes here today.”
Flowers drew parallels between Warren County’s protests and Lowndes County, Alabama, which has drawn national attention for its sanitation problems that disproportionately affect Black residents.
Ana Paras of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services relayed similar stories about Southeast Houston. And Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice described why the region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans she calls home is recognized as “Cancer Alley,” with 152 petrochemical plants and six refineries.
Wright recounted seeing Chavis on national television during Warren County’s protests.
“I remember him saying this is environmental racism,” Wright said. “That was the first time that [term] had ever been used. And it became our rallying cry because for me, it gave a name to what I was feeling.”
Wright and others were inspired to compile data that would back up the widespread anecdotal claims of communities like Warren County’s.
With studies like Charles Lee’s landmark “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” in 1987, the movement solidified. Lee witnessed the PCB protests firsthand before going on to fill multiple leadership roles within EPA.
Lee was in the audience Saturday and lauded by Chavis and Regan in their addresses.
In hers, Burwell citied the famous line by Martin Luther King Jr. in which he said the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice. She hopes new policies will “enable all of us to continue to bend the arc toward environmental justice.”
Barber said EPA’s announcement Saturday was only the beginning in ensuring that disadvantaged communities would have the resources to be protected against corporations that “thought nobody would stop them.”
Multiple speakers acknowledged the struggles indigenous peoples face in environmental inequality, and to that end, Haliwa-Saponi Chief Ogletree Richardson represented her tribe as a featured orator.
Kearney, a local faith leader and activist, told the crowd he hoped the 40th anniversary celebration would be more than a celebration, and symbolize a continued push for change.
“We should work together to challenge systems and policies that are working adversely and unfairly against low-income communities and communities of color,” Kearney said. “I think this is Warren County’s season, to rise to the occasion, to be the point of a spear of the environmental justice movement. After all, we birthed a movement. What man meant for harm, God meant for good. To God be the glory.”