On Oct. 24, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 292, which supports the pursuit of environmental justice in North Carolina. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

NC - Gov. Cooper issues environmental justice order, says it will “last beyond this administration”

Hundreds of communities across North Carolina are burdened by multiple pollution sources

Every year, the 6,000 people who live adjacent to the Port of Wilmington, in New Hanover County, are assaulted with hundreds of tons of air pollution: from the concrete plants spewing their ultra-fine dust, the fumigation facilities legally emitting neurotoxins like methyl bromide and phosphine, the ships and trains and tractor-trailers exhaling plumes of diesel fumes.

These 6,000 people – 41% of them nonwhite, 58% of them low-income, census data show – also are beset by PFAS in the Cape Fear River, hazardous waste sites that have leached poisons into the groundwater, and the toxic legacy of old refineries.

This neighborhood is one of hundreds of environmental justice communities across North Carolina – from Waynesville in the mountains to Aberdeen in the Sandhills, Oxford in the Piedmont and Sampson County in the hog country of the Coastal Plain – where people of color and low-income families are disproportionately burdened by pollution.

Many, if not most EJ communities, are home to multiple contamination sources, known as cumulative impacts. After one pollution source – say, a quarry – moves in, then comes another. The asphalt and concrete plants arrive, along with the diesel trucks and heavier traffic, clustering pollution in a single neighborhood.

Undoing these toxic legacies is difficult, but President Biden’s administration, under its Justice40 program, as well as Gov. Roy Cooper’s, are focusing on preventing further harm and directing funds to long-ignored EJ communities.

A new plan for North Carolina

On Tuesday Gov. Cooper signed Executive Order 292, “Advancing Environmental Justice for North Carolina.” Cooper said EO 292 “takes a whole of government approach that brings more communication, more listening and more transparency.

  • The order creates a new 22-member EJ advisory council within the governor’s office, moving and expanding the Environmental Justice & Equity Advisory Board that is currently under the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Half of the new board’s membership will be appointed by the governor, with the balance appointed by cabinet secretaries.

The board, created by former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, has advised only that agency, to the exclusion of others that are also accountable for environmental issues: The Departments of Transportation, Health and Human Services, Commerce and Natural and Cultural Resources.  

“We needed all the cabinet agencies to participate,” Gov. Cooper said.

Sherri White-Williamson, a member of the existing DEQ EJ advisory board, is also director of Environmental Justice Strategy for the N.C. Conservation Network. She also co-founded the nonprofit EJCAN, a community advocacy group based in Clinton, in Sampson County.  

“People who are poor, brown, Black and Indigenous have suffered from a lack of access to the levers of power,” White-Williamson said at the signing ceremony. “This is an important and welcomed step. There remains much more that North Carolina can do to protect frontline communities from outsized exposures to pollution. Solving these problems will require building greater trust and transparency between state government and impacted communities. And this new board offers an opportunity and perhaps an obligation to do just that.”

The Executive Order contains several other provisions:

  • The new advisory council is required to work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to research cumulative environmental impacts on communities.
  • Each cabinet agency must draft at least three EJ goals and measurable outcomes by mid-February 2024. These goals will be subject to a formal public comment period.
  • A new Environmental Justice Hub website will be developed by the Department of Information Technology. It will host a mapping tool, essentially an upgraded version of DEQ’s Community Mapping System that was required as part of a 2018 federal civil rights settlement with environmental groups. (The complaint was filed against the McCrory administration and settled under Cooper’s.)

The enhanced tool will show where pollution sources are concentrated, along with census data, climate stressors, health data, and “sensitive receptors” – churches, schools, daycares and affordable housing communities. The website will also list grant opportunities for local and tribal governments and nonprofit groups. The tool is scheduled to be published within a year.

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