Are we finally starting to make some real progress after all these years?
That’s what most Rogers Road residents are wondering now after decades of unfulfilled promises that were made in exchange for having the Orange County landfill right next to their community. Many, but not all, of the promises have been fulfilled since the time they were made 40 years ago, but it has taken years of continuous fighting by generations of people to make things happen.
The historically black neighborhood was promised water, sewer, paved roads, sidewalks, streetlights, recreational facilities, and a community center.
The plan for the landfill, along with the promises, began in 1972. Some residents thought it would be at least a start to the beginning of a better life. But from that time on, what actually began were garbage trucks driving through the neighborhood dropping garbage, people getting trash blown in their yards, and buzzards landing in yards carrying pieces of who-knows-what. The list of problems goes on and on. Parts of the landfill didn’t even have regulations, so people could dump whatever they wanted. Plus, there was no lining, so various pollutants would leak into nearby creeks and streams.
The first of the promises to be fulfilled were the paved roads, but only for the sake of the garbage trucks that were getting torn up by the dirt roads, not because of any agreement that was made with the residents of the neighborhood. But residents were hopeful that this would be the beginning of much more. Instead, it resulted in even more trucks barreling through, continuing to tear up people’s yards and spew out loose garbage.
More promises have been fulfilled, but slowly, over decades. It was just this past November that the building of the new community center was finally completed and got up and running with an unpaid staff of three putting in a combined 159 hours a week. Final phases of the water and sewer plans were approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council last fall, but these have not been put in yet.
I got involved in the community when David Caldwell, project director of the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association, ran for sheriff of Orange County. I read his campaign statements in the paper and shortly thereafter met him and got involved with his campaign. Many of us were disappointed when he narrowly lost the election, but working with his campaign opened the door for me to get involved with the Rogers Road community during my gap year between high school and college, as well as to learn more about the difficulties that have been faced by so many families in the neighborhood.
The papers for the 1972 agreement for these basic necessities in exchange for bearing the burden of the landfill were signed in the backyard of Mr. Caldwell’s father, David Caldwell Sr. What I found most disturbing was the fact that over the years, the basic response of most politicians from Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Carrboro, Orange County, as well as other places with representatives present at the signing was, “We weren’t the ones who made those promises.” In other words, as each new set of elected officials took office, most felt no obligation to follow through on any of the agreements made to the community because they hadn’t been the ones who had literally signed the papers in Mr. Caldwell’s backyard.
“You hear politicians talk about ‘promises, promises,’ but to actually hear it and see it and then to be told ‘we don’t have to keep those promises, we don’t have to fulfill them’ was unbelievable” says Mr. Caldwell (Jr.).
I had always thought of Orange County as such a progressive area. We have places like Weaver Street Market in Carrboro with its crowd of people that are dedicated to social justice causes. We have the university, which has been a place of progressive ideas and actions. And it seems like the fight for justice that you hear about in the local news always appears to be about renaming a building, taking down Silent Sam, or calling out micro-aggressions. I had heard a little bit about Rogers Road before, but had never really put too much thought into what was happening right next door to me, and for how long. Many of us have turned a blind eye to this huge example of injustice in Orange County.
Mr. Caldwell invited me to the annual Environmental Justice summit that takes place in Whitakers, N.C., run by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. And as I found out, Orange County appears to be progressive when compared to other counties around the state and nation. Other historically black neighborhoods around the the country, especially in the deep South, often have far worse problems than we have in Orange County. They keep on fighting just as hard as Rogers Road has done for the past 40 years, but their rate of progress has been much slower. We’re just the tip of the iceberg.
All of these communities have survived a great deal of what could only be defined as environmental racism. That term was coined after a disastrous PCB spill in North Carolina, when a disposal contractor dumped close to 13,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) along 210 miles of road in 14 different counties. The state chose Warren County, NC, as the place to build the landfill to bury all of the contaminated soil. This county was one of ninety different sites considered for the PCB disposal, and it just so happens that Warren had a higher percentage of African-American residents than any other county in the state.
Pretty much all of us become NIMBYs (not in my back yard) when there is talk of doing anything that could be a nuisance or potentially dangerous anywhere near our own neighborhoods. Common items on the list include hydraulic fracking, coal ash ponds, landfills, and hog farms. Nobody enjoys living close to where any of these hazards are located, but low income and historically black neighborhoods are almost always the ones that end up bearing the burden, even in Orange County. Racism is different from what it was 50 years ago, and some people may go too far in looking for racism, but that is not to say that it doesn’t still exist and affect people throughout communities nationwide.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Environmental justice is everybody’s problem, and it is time that we stop constantly going over what the problem is and raising more and more awareness. Instead, we must get on our feet, take action and move forward.
Lucas Selvidge graduated from Carolina Friends School and will enter Guilford College in August.