WRAL Investigates

Environmental protests remembered in Warren County exhibit

Posted March 30, 2012 6:23 p.m. EDT
Updated March 30, 2012 6:58 p.m. EDT

— It's been three decades since a controversial decision by the state of North Carolina to dump soil laced with cancer-causing chemicals on land in Warren County.

The move prompted weeks of demonstrations and more than 500 arrests.

Now, the county is commemorating the protests in a new exhibit set to go on display Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Warren County Memorial Library in Warrenton and later this summer at other places in the county.

The history of the issue dates to 1978, when a manufacturer of electrical transformers illegally dumped polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that were used in coolant along the sides of 240 miles of North Carolina highways.

By 1982, the state decided it was going to dig up the contaminated soil and move it to a landfill in Warren County.

That prompted outrage from homeowners and environmental activists who were concerned about how PCBS might contaminate the water supply.

Weeks of civil obedience and protests followed.

Almena Mayes was 16 years old and in high school at the time.

"When they were talking about how the toxic waste was going to affect our future, I was a part of that future," she said.

Ken Ferrucio was president of the Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs.

"If you look at the art exhibit, you'll see that many people were involved in it and hoped to transform environmentalism," he said.

His wife, Deborah Ferruccio, recalled Friday juggling life at the protests while teaching at Vance-Granville Community College.

"If I had a 9 a.m. class, I could go teach, and I'd come back in time to catch the later-morning arrests, and, depending on how long it took them to process us in jail, I would get out and sometimes have an afternoon class that I'd have to get back for," she said

For those who were there 30 years ago, they hope their message still resonates for businesses and governments when it comes to environmental awareness.

"The message that Warren County has for people everywhere is that people can unite," Deborah Ferruccio said.

Eventually, the state did decide to clean the landfill. The controversy today now has to do with what to do with the fenced-in land.

Some want to leave it alone, while others want to turn it into a park. Although the land was decontaminated in 2003, there's still lingering concerns about whether it's safe.