Lumberton, North Carolina, in Robeson County is a microcosm of the issues we face as a nation. Business as usual marches on while we reel from a global pandemic, from wrongful murders, and from the constant onslaught of racism, climate change, and a system that continues to prioritize corporations and profit with no regard for human life.
It is these local fights for justice where we must show up and make our stand in solidarity.
In this small town, the national pandemics of COVID-19, climate change, and institutional racism relentlessly impact the daily lives of local residents who are fighting to stop a proposed wood pellet facility from harming their community.
Every day throughout the rural South, George Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe” echo.
A concentration of industrial energy production, industrial logging, and industrial agriculture spew toxic pollution and degrade the air, water, and land of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The threats of severe weather and hurricanes loom. And the Coronavirus continues to have a disproportionate impact.
Structural inequality and racism runs deep.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in.” Recent events have shone a light on the dust. And when that dust is combined with the lack of funding to rural communities and grassroots, BIPOC-led organizations, lack of access to healthcare, food insecurity, police brutality, and climate change, the rural South is choking.
The numbers are stark:
- Overall, Black Americans are exposed to 38% more polluted air than white Americans.
- 71% of Black Americans live in counties that are in violation of clean-air standards.
- Environmental Justice communities are 50% more likely to have a wood pellet facility in their county
- In North Carolina, every single wood pellet facility is located in an environmental justice community.
- Black Americans represent 13.4% of the American population, according to the US Census Bureau, but counties with higher Black populations account for more than half of all Covid-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths.
- BIPOC communities already have and will continue to suffer disproportionately from the extreme weather that becomes more common with climate change, from hurricanes and flooding to heat waves and wildfires.
In Robeson County, where the population is 42% Native American and 24% African-American, the county is ranked worst in the state of North Carolina for health outcomes. According to NC DEQ’s own Community Mapping Tool, residents of Robeson County live with at least a dozen pollution sources. These include a solid waste landfill, coal ash sites, and a NC Renewable Power plant, a major pollutant source that burns poultry litter and wood waste. The abundance of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) in Robeson County make the community particularly susceptible to outbreaks of Coronavirus that thrive in meat processing production lines. Many people are still rebuilding after Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence devastated homes, roads, and other infrastructure due to the extreme flooding that made this North Carolina community the subject of national headlines.
In the midst of these pandemics, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) is attempting to push through the permitting of a proposed black wood pellet facility, Active Energy Renewable Power (AERP). Recently, NC DEQ scheduled a digital public hearing for June 22nd. This is despite local concern over the facility’s pollution, the siting of the facility in a flood zone and in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Local leaders, including the Robeson County Branch of the NAACP, the RedTailed Hawk Collective, and the NC Environmental Justice Network, have expressed concern that holding a virtual public hearing will limit the accessibility of the residents who will suffer the greatest impacts from the AERP wood pellet facility. More than half of Robeson County residents lack broadband access completely, and for those who do have access, service is unreliable. A digital public hearing will not provide a meaningful opportunity for engagement for the residents most directly impacted by this facility.
From Minneapolis to Lumberton, the same toxic systems are killing innocent people at the hands of police and at the hands of environmental racism. The movement for climate justice cannot exist without the Movement for Black Lives.
The pandemic of injustice reinforces the need for a Just Transition: one that prioritizes community needs and well-being, ecological resilience, and systems that work for all and not just for a few.
We need deep, structural change that puts resources in the hands of the communities hit hardest by the threats of climate change, racism, and dirty energy production. We need community and BIPOC-led solutions, and we need to truly listen to and follow this leadership.
Supporting this vision takes more than lip service to a cause.
It will take true, honest, and difficult self-reflection on the part of white people and white-led environmental organizations. It requires following local leadership – really, truly following local leadership. It requires putting resources, time, and intention towards frontline organizations and BIPOC leadership. The movement for justice will not be accomplished overnight or in a vacuum. We are honored to do this lifework with our partners and with our Dogwood Alliance community.