Robeson County is still struggling to recover from storms that came ashore more than 5 years ago. In 2016, the Lumber River was already at 13 feet when Hurricane Matthew hit and crested at almost 24 feet. The widespread flooding left more than 14,000 utility customers without power and hundreds sought refuge in shelters. Two years later, Hurricane Florence hit, bringing 130 mph winds and more than 30 inches of rain. Downed trees from prior storms exacerbated the flooding.
Having two “1,000 year” storms within two years heightened the awareness of and focus on climate change even among people who had previously given it little thought. Already burdened by a landfill, industrial swine and poultry farms, coal ash ponds and a poultry litter burning plant, local residents began to organize in the wake of Florence.
A multiracial team of activists formed the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development (RCCSD) to challenge the cumulative and disproportionate impact of climate change in communities of color.
"Coming to Robeson County, I got a chance to see how all of that plays out and how it’s all connected,” says Anita Cunningham, RCCSD project director. “It was more impactful because of the degree of harm that was being inflicted on the community that I live in.”
Robeson is one of the poorest and least educated counties in the state. Because its population is 43% American Indian and 23% Black, many people see the concentration of what Cunningham calls “dirty industries” in their communities as textbook environmental racism.
For decades, the county mostly avoided the industrial hog farms but wasn’t so lucky when it came to industrial poultry farming. According to a report from Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeepers Alliance (WKA) the estimated number of chickens and turkeys in Robeson county has increased by about 24 million since 2012.
London-based Active Energy Renewable Power (AERP) recently received $500,000 in state funding to help purchase and convert an old Lumberton factory into a wood pellet mill, a rapidly expanding industry in the former cotton trade states that are most vulnerable to climate change.
The environmental nonprofit Dogwood Alliance says the mills are 50 percent more likely to be located near communities with above-average poverty levels and a population that’s at least 25 percent nonwhite. According to DEQ’s mapping system, 90 percent of the residents in the vicinity of the Lumberton site are people of color and two-thirds are low-income.
The people here aren’t swayed by promises of jobs and economic development since similar promises haven’t been kept in other places where wood pellet plants opened. AERP is already being sued in federal court for violating its air quality permit and making unpermitted discharges of industrial stormwater pollution into the Lumber River.
Residents have mounted a long opposition campaign against the proposed facility, which they fear will bring even more pollution to the community. “The trees are the lungs of the forest and they’re cutting down like 60 acres a day in North Carolina,” says Cunningham. “It doesn't matter how long it takes. I'm just gonna have to engage my kids, my grandkids and the communities to understand that this is the only planet we have.”