Growing up in Sampson County, Danielle Melvin Koonce was somewhat informed about the many environmental issues that plagued the area, even though she wasn’t very dialed in to the specifics.
“I was aware of this stench from the hog farm that was behind my grandmother's house and I was in high school when the landfill was established but I was really only thinking about Friday night football and going to college,” says Koonce. “It wasn't until I took an environmental sociology class in college and so much of the literature was focused on Sampson and Duplin counties that I realized that everything I’ve been reading in textbooks and articles about environmental racism was happening right in my own county.”
Hog farming is everywhere in rural Sampson County but Koonce came to understand the difference between the few hogs her grandfather or neighbors raised and the impact of the large-scale industrial operations that began to swamp the area in the early 1990s. “My grandfather’s farm wasn’t like the CAFOs behind the house where probably hundreds or thousands of pigs are packed into a facility,” she says.
Koonce got bitten by the community and grassroots organizing bug when she worked with Organizing for America (OFA) on the 2012 Obama reelection campaign. That experience prompted her return to East Carolina University (ECU) to get her master's in sociology in 2015. The next year, she enrolled in the University of Maryland’s PhD program in sociology with a focus on race and the environment. “I wanted to do my dissertation on issues impacting my county and people like me,” says Koonce. “My professors at the University of Maryland were very supportive of me centering my work back home.”
When the pandemic hit, Koonce and her husband moved back to Sampson county with their two young sons. She met Sherri White-Williamson who was just starting to put together the Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJ CAN) to focus on the region’s long standing environmental injustices. That’s also when she realized that many people in the community were still unaware of the massive hog farms, the groundwater pollution and the toxic runoff in the streams and rivers.
“We have the landfill, the wood pellet factories, biogas facility, hog farms and poultry farms. Part of the county is in a very high floodplain, so we constantly battle hurricane season,” says Koonce. “And, yet this is the first time we've ever had an organization devoted to environmental racism and environmental justice in the county.”
Koonce first got involved with the 1,300 acre landfill that takes in trash and construction debris from hundreds of miles away and completely changed the once vibrant, business-oriented Snow Hill community into the state’s dumping ground.
“The odor is cutting, individuals can’t go outside and they talk about not trusting the drinking water even though they're on county water. Just imagine how much money they are paying to live in that community,” she says. “What the landfill did to that community was sad and depressing. That motivated me.”
When the landfill was initially proposed two decades ago, a group of community activists fought hard to stop it but the local government approved it over their objections.
“Some people say it's too late now and, to some degree, they're right but you still have to fight for the future because this could happen again to some other unsuspecting community,” says Koonce. “The exposure is a win. The more people know, the better decisions they can make as individuals and as communities.”