“What I’ve seen over and over again in my work as an environmentalist is environmental injustice,” Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette explained. “Whether it’s where we put landfills, or hazardous material incinerators, or build factory farms or cement plants or fertilizer plants, the people who are most likely to face disproportionate negative impacts from these facilities are low-income people of color, with a very limited political voice and little ability to fight this injustice. We can’t let GenX be another example of environmental injustice in our community.”
So began last week’s Water Wednesday forum, held at the Coastline Convention Center. The topic for discussion: “Are We Communicating?” The answer, despite widespread local media coverage, still seems to be “not really.” The general consensus from both the speakers and the people asking questions was our elected officials are not communicating information the general public needs to answer a basic question: “Can we drink the water?” Instead, they pass the buck to higher governmental entities, like the EPA and DEQ, who move with the glacial pace expected of federal operations. All governments are sometimes inexpedient, as Thoreau reminds us, but what was said in the meeting boils down to: We need action now.
According to former mayor Harper Peterson’s opening remarks, there are people in our community who don’t have subscriptions to the StarNews, or access to the Internet or Facebook—some who don’t even have televisions, computers or smartphones. Some might not even speak English to the extent necessary to fully understand. Have they received updated, factual, pertinent information? Can they make an informed choice about giving their families tap water?
“Everyone has a right to clean water,” Peterson noted, “and to have as much information as any and everybody else in the community.”
Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the NHC NAACP, and district director for six counties (five of which are affected by GenX), stepped up to the microphone. Lack of communication from noted officials is high, and she made the point that when elected officials run for office, they use every method of communication possible: mailing lists, robo-calls, radio ads. Yet, contaminated water of their constituents hasn’t received as much attention. “It’s a shame and disservice,” Maxwell continued. “Talk to your neighbors; ask them, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’”
Maxwell agreed with Burdette’s assessment that it’s been an ongoing problem within minority communities in this country for a long time. The difference now: It’s happening to the entire region. “We can’t ignore it,” she said. She noted a community right over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, beside of Leland: Navassa. Primarily African-American, located in Brunswick County, it contains five EPA superfund sites. “I hope we never forget where the rest of the stuff is going. Do not let it go into another community,” she warned. “It must be disposed of properly.”
Rev. Robert Campbell, the pastor of New Beginning Christian Church in Wrightsboro, asked, “Where is the action that goes with the alarm?” If this was truly serious, he said, our elected officials would promulgate the information with greater force and emphasis. He spoke of the difficulties communicating the threat to his congregation when he still had many questions himself. “We need everyday answers,” he said, to help the common layman answer: Is it OK to boil the water? (No.) How about filtering it? (No, again.) Can he bathe in it? (Yes, the chemical is not lipophilic enough to absorb through the skin.) He’s still washing his dishes in it—would adding bleach to the dishwasher help? (Afraid not.)
A Spanish interpreter was present to translate the information being discussed, but Peterson mentioned most of the Hispanic population in Wilmington (around 9 percent of the 220,000 people in our city) weren’t at the meeting because they were afraid to come downtown at night. The Centro Hispano at UNCW has been working to help disseminate necessary information, he added.
Take time to talk to people in line at a grocery store, as Maxwell recommended. Six simple words could make all the difference: “Do you know what’s going on?” As Delthea Simmons, cofounder of the Wilmington Progressive Coalition, put it, we can view it as a crisis or an opportunity to come together. “We need to get the word out,” she urged. At a time when information can be sent to far corners of the earth in an instant, we still need to talk with our neighbors right beside us.