Warren County was one of the first cases of environmental justice in the United States and is considered an emblematic struggle.
In 1973, Ward Transformers Company dumped 31,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) along more than 220 miles of roadways of 14 counties of the state of North Carolina. PCBs are highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, whose production has been banned by the United States Congress since 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention in 2001. High concentrations of these pollutants have been associated with the development of skin conditions, ocular lesions, lower immune responses and cancer.
The State of North Carolina responded to the dumping of PCBs with the decision to build a landfill to deposit all the contaminated soil. The location chosen for the landfill was Shocco, a rural town in Warren County whose population was 75% African American without mayor or city council. Compared to the state of North Carolina, Warren County was one of the poorest counties (ranked 97 out of the 100 counties in the state, in terms of GDP).
Afraid of the possibility of toxic materials contaminating their groundwater supplies, in 1979 local residents formed Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs to fight the siting and construction of the landfill. Residents held rallies and protests of the landfill. More than 50 people out of 500 protesters were arrested by state highways patrol the first day truckload of contaminated soils started to arrive to the landfill. The protests and arrests (523 people) continued for the next six weeks while the contaminated soil arrived. These protests attracted support from the civil rights movement across the nation and media began to relate this environmental conflict with issues of institutionalized environmental racism. After weeks of protests, North Carolina Governor James Hunt promised to detoxify the landfill whenever possible. Three months after capping the landfill in 1982, gas leakages started to occur and the state proposed to construct a drainage system to remove the contaminated water.
After waiting more than two decades, efforts to detoxify the dump began in June 2001 and lasted until December 2003. The detoxification and neutralization work at the landfill had a total cost of $18 million, paid by state and federal sources.
A private contractor hired by the state dug up and burned 81,500 tons of oil-laced soil in a kiln that reached more than 800-degrees Fahrenheit to remove the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The soil was put back in a football-size pit, re-covered to form a mound, graded, and seeded with grass. However, detoxifying the landfill does not bring the community back to its pre-1982 PCB-free environmental condition. Soil still containing small PCBs levels is buried at least 15 feet below the surface in the dump .