The dots on this map, produced by DEQ, show the location of every permitted pollution source in Robeson County.
This story is the latest in a series of reports that NC Newsline is publishing about environmental justice issues and cumulative pollution impacts in Robeson County. Funding for this project comes from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
In 2013, after local residents had routinely called state environmental regulators about the stench emanating from the Mountaire chicken slaughter plant in Lumber Bridge, after the facility had been cited for violating groundwater pollution standards, and even after one person died and another four were injured because of an ammonia leak, the Robeson County Commissioners gave the company $90,000 in taxpayer money as an economic incentive for spending an additional $5 million to expand the plant.
Despite the county’s largesse, odor complaints have continued, state records show. In 2015, Kevin Green, who lives across from one of Mountaire’s sprayfields, called the NC Department of Environmental Quality and told officials there that the smell on “warm and hot days is unbearable.” Green operated a daycare out of his home, “Little Dreams of Faith,” which was “being highly affected” because parents wouldn’t take their children there for fear the plant would harm their health. (The daycare is still in business.)
Finally in 2018, DEQ and Mountaire entered a Special Order by Consent that required the company to upgrade its treatment system to reduce the odor and alleviate the misery inflicted upon its neighbors.
The long-simmering conflict between economic development and environmental justice is boiling over in North Carolina, including in Robeson County, where many residents of overburdened communities no longer see the financial benefit in welcoming polluting industries to town. (Channing Jones, head of Robeson County’s economic development office, did not return requests for comment.)
At a meeting of the state Environmental Justice & Equity Advisory Board earlier this spring, David Lambert, DEQ’s project liaison with the Commerce Department, said recruiting industry is a “balance of making a living and making communities livable.”
Robeson County certainly needs good-paying jobs and economic investment. The county is one of the poorest in the state, with more than half of its residents living below the federal poverty line, according to census data. But Robeson also ranks last – 100th of 100 counties – in health factors and outcomes, a position it’s held since 2016, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Air pollution, hazardous waste, flooding, PFAS in the drinking water: All of it contributes to poorer health, both physical and mental.
Environmental Justice & Equity Advisory Board member Veronica Carter, who is from Brunswick County, said disadvantaged communities are at risk of accepting any industry that’s willing to come. “Companies go into rural communities and dangle a carrot called ‘jobs.’ Everybody jumps at it, and 20 years down the road we’re cleaning up a Superfund site.”
Patrick Woodie is president and CEO of the NC Rural Center, which helps small businesses access funding and make communities more attractive to industry. The center emphasizes historically disadvantaged people and places in North Carolina’s 78 rural counties, including Robeson.
He said the question of economic development and environmental justice is difficult for many communities. “There’s no single approach to economic development and the tolerance for what a community will allow varies from place to place,” Woodie said.
Some rural communities are choosing less toxic reinventions as tourist destinations or small tech hubs; the latter, though, requires reliable Internet broadband service, which rural areas often lack. In Robeson County, 85% of households have a computer, but a third of these households don’t have broadband, census data show.
Yet many communities still want to replace the jobs that were lost when traditional industries left – such as furniture and textiles. These areas are looking for manufacturing plants or other industries to return.
Environmental justice communities – nonwhite, low-income neighborhoods disproportionately burdened with pollution – are not born but created by policymakers when “bad industries are placed in communities,” said Sherri White-Williamson, an EJ board member from Sampson County.
That’s what happened in Robeson four years ago, when Active Energy Renewable Power received a $500,000 grant from the state commerce department to redevelop the old Alamac Knits plant in south Lumberton into a wood pellet plant.
There was intense community opposition to the proposal. Robeson County’s forests – an important natural solution to destructive flooding – are already in the clearcutting zone for an Enviva wood pellet plant in Richmond County. And AERP’s estimated air emissions would have totaled 11,300 tons of greenhouse gases, 7.9 tons of carbon monoxide, 2.5 tons of hazardous air pollutants and 23.6 tons of volatile organic compounds each year. This, in an underserved neighborhood already burdened with another major air polluter, NC Renewable Power, plus an unlined dump, five mines, a concrete plant and a spot where coal ash had been disposed of as “structural fill.”
Nonetheless, DEQ issued an air permit to AERP. But before the first pellet was ever made, the company encountered financial and legal difficulties and moved to Maine. AERP didn’t meet its job creation requirements, so it never received the half-million dollars in taxpayer money.
Many of the state’s key industries – biotech, financial services and information technology – have a smaller pollution footprint than heavy manufacturing. But others listed on the Commerce Department’s website – food manufacturing, such as Smithfield, Mountaire, and plastics and chemicals, including Chemours and DuPont – exact enormous environmental and public health costs on nearby residents.
A Commerce spokesperson told NC Newsline that the state “targets industries that provide good-paying job opportunities in industries that value the state’s priorities for sustainability, work-based learning and inclusive hiring.”
As environmental awareness increases – and as nonwhite people from these burdened communities gain leadership positions – future economic developers and county officials may be less eager to welcome polluting industries.
“We need to help build a next generation of rural leaders that can consider the benefits and costs of bringing in an industry that creates potential environmental hazards,” Woodie of the Rural Center said. “Many rural communities need to develop long-term plans and leadership structures that will allow them to think about how they want to position their communities for the future.”
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