In Robeson County, asthma rates are twice the state average — worsened by air pollution

Clusters of air contaminants occur along highways, as well as in areas with many polluters

By: - June 3, 2023 8:10 am
a family on a couch

Left to right: Aponda Bullard, mother of Donnie Rahnàwakew McDowell; Donnie, his wife, Iesha Ford; and daughters Dyani and Leonidez (Photo by Justin Cook)

This story is part of a series 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.

The Campbell Soup company and the Silgan container factory share the same 670-acre tract near Maxton, a small town of 2,100 people. The companies’ relationship is mutually beneficial: Campbell makes the soup and Silgan makes the cans. But these benefits do not extend to the environment or public health. 

Together, Campbell and Silgan legally emitted 53,415 tons of air pollution in 2021, according to state records. Of that amount, 6.3 tons were classified as hazardous, including cancer-causing chemicals benzene and formaldehyde, and n-hexane, which can damage the reproductive and nervous systems, as well as irritate the respiratory tract. And because the two facilities are clustered together, so is the air pollution, burdening a community that is 95.6% nonwhite and more than 52% low-income, census records show.

Maxton is home to hundreds of Tuscarorans. While the Lumbee have a higher profile in Robeson County — the tribe is state-recognized — the Tuscarora also have deep roots there, with communities in Saddletree Township and Prospect. (House Bill 699 would have given state recognition to the Tuscarora this year; it died in committee.) The Tuscarora are equally harmed by pollution but nonetheless are often excluded in environmental decisions. For example, the Lumbee were consulted by the federal and state government about the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion and Duke eventually withdrew the project. 

The dots represent the locations of facilities with state air permits. The purple dots show those that have Title V permits, issued to the largest emitters: Campbell Soup, Silgan Container, Duke Energy, and the Robeson County Landfill. The black and yellow dots indicate facilities with permits that emit in smaller but still significant amounts: concrete and asphalt plants, landfills and the Mountaire slaughterhouse in Lumber Bridge. (Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ data)

However, the Tuscarora were not consulted, said tribal member Donnie Rahnàwakew McDowell, even though a major natural gas compressor station was planned for Prospect. 

Members of both tribes live in Prospect, but it is especially key to the Tuscarora, Rahnàwakew McDowell said. “We were very concerned about the compressor station. If a catastrophe hits there – that’s our emergence point” in Robeson County. “Since we don’t have tribal recognition, we get left out of the conversation. Our voices are not considered.”

There are 25 facilities with state air permits in and near tribal and nonwhite communities in Robeson County, including concrete and asphalt plants, hosiery factories and Piedmont Natural Gas, all of which pump thousands of tons of pollution, including greenhouse gases, into the air. 

This graphic shows the largest amounts of hazardous air pollutants emitted by facilities with air permits in Robeson County in 2021. (Source: EPA Toxics Release Inventory)

But those permits don’t account for other significant air pollution sources in Robeson County: enormous hog and poultry farms that emit not just methane, but also acrid ammonia, as well as highways.

In Robeson County, the very traffic arteries that transport people, goods and opportunity, also pollute the air: I-95, the main interstate from Maine to Florida runs through St. Pauls and Lumberton, and unincorporated areas. U.S. 74 is a primary east-west thoroughfare. But even state roads like NC 41, 20 and 71 that are frequently traveled by diesel trucks, expose nearby residents to harmful levels of many pollutants. 

Carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxide and PM 2.5 all leave tailpipes from gasoline-powered vehicles. Benzene is a carcinogen. Nitrogen oxide is a major component of ozone, which can worsen asthma. 

PM 2.5 – particulate matter smaller than the width of a human hair – burrows into the lungs and invades the bloodstream. Chronic exposure can increase the risk of dementia, and cause babies to be born too soon and too small. Black women have preterm birth rates 50% higher than white women, primarily because of exposure to air pollution. Not counting emissions from cars and trucks, 6.6 tons of PM 2.5 entered the air in Robeson County in 2021.

Maxton, St. Pauls and Lumberton all are near – or are bisected by – major thoroughfares. Some neighborhoods are actually sandwiched between U.S. 301 and I-95. In those areas, the rate of hospitalizations because of asthma is three times the North Carolina average, state data show. A similar pattern holds true for heart disease, cancer and child mortality.

“More people are dying from air pollution than gun violence, than car crashes, than overdoses,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, formerly of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and now at the National Wildlife Federation, at the annual CleanAIRE NC conference in April. “Toxic air pollutants have even been found in the brains and lungs of unborn infants.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging counties to include environmental justice in their regular local health assessments, usually published roughly every two or three years, Dr. Virginia Guidry, DHHS’s environmental justice lead official, said at the conference. “People need equal access to a clean environment.” 

And that means listening to all residents and recognizing they are experts in their communities. “Let them be a part of driving the solutions,” said Dr. Chris Heaney of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Where should we be looking? At what time of day? We need to spend time and listen.”

NC Renewable Power, a major source of air pollution on Hestertown Road in Lumberton, burned poultry waste and wood to sell to Duke Energy for electricity. Even though the NCRP had an extensive violation history, the Department of Environmental Quality reissued an air permit to the facility. It closed, though, for nonpayment of taxes. It is for sale for $1.4 million. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.