The iconic Poor People’s Campaign launched 50 years ago in the United states by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is being recreated as a struggle for environmental justice, with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II treating climate change and broader environmental concerns as a pillar of today’s war on poverty.
“Jesus said love your neighbour,” Barber told a capacity crowd at Shiloh Baptist Church in Greenboro, NC earlier this month, with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore sitting behind him on the dais. “I don’t care how many times you tell me you love me. If you put coal ash in my water you don’t love me. Because if there was nothing wrong with the coal ash, then put it in the wealthy communities.”
Barber’s message “would have been largely recognizable to civil rights leaders of generations past, addressing issues of poverty and racism,” the New York Times reports. “But he and Mr. Gore were here in Greensboro to focus on another concern that many in the audience believed was just as insidious: pollution from North Carolina’s coal-powered electrical plants.”
The Times says Barber is best known for the campaign that fought voting rights restrictions in North Carolina and helped defeat a sitting governor in 2016. Fast forward two years, and he and Gore “spent two days touring nearby towns, drawing attention to environmental issues and making it clear that voters could act on them come Election Day,” the Times states. Their starting point: that “lower-income communities—especially black, Hispanic, and Native American ones—tend to be more polluted and bear more of the burden of climate change than higher-income and white communities.”
Barber stressed he wasn’t focused on partisan results. “This is the real question, not if Democrats are going to get elected, not if Republicans are going to get elected, but if America is going to be America,” he said. For that to happen, “she’s going to have to address systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and our false moral narrative of religious nationalism.”
A key issue in North Carolina is the presence of coal ash ponds in towns like Belews Creek, a “predominantly black community in a predominantly white county”, the Times notes, where the local coal-fired power plant stashes the hazardous, powdery byproduct in a storage pond with no protective lining. That basic design flaw means the coal ash and its components, including heavy metals like arsenic and lead, can seep into local groundwater. Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is rolling back Obama-era restrictions on coal ash disposal, even though it’s been linked to nervous system problems, reproductive issues, and cancer.
The Belews Creek plant is the target of a lawsuit against its owner, Duke Energy, filed last December by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It accuses Duke of “dumping untreated coal ash pollution directly into surface water at the Belews Creek plant, and that the coal ash pond is leaking into surface water and the connected groundwater,” the Times reports. “Duke says its studies and outside experts agree there is no evidence that the Belews Creek facility is polluting nearby drinking water wells.” But a 2016 study found that unlined coal ash ponds do generally leak into groundwater.
“Coal ash ponds are in rural areas, particularly in the Southeast. Those communities have less power and less of a voice,” said Earthjustice lawyer Lisa Evans, who’s not involved in the Belews Creek case.
“Those are the areas that do not have municipal water systems to filter and clean the water,” she added. “When you contaminate groundwater in a rural area, that’s their lifeline.”
The Times article connects the local history of environmental health issues with North Carolina’s past leadership in environmental protest. “Where did the environmental justice movement begin?” Gore asked the crowd at Shiloh Baptist. “It began right here in North Carolina, in 1982, in Warren County.”
And of course, less than a mile away from the church, Greenboro was also the site of the 1960 sit-in at a segregated lunch counter that helped set the spark for the movement that desegregated restaurants across the U.S. South.