Nearly 600 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire at the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant, located in Winston Salem, North Carolina on Jan. 31. The fire burned for four days straight, with firefighters being unable to approach and contain the fire, due to the risk of a deadly explosion with the potential to kill thousands. Instead, residents within a mile radius were told to evacuate, temporarily displacing a reported 6,000 residents.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical used to make fertilizers and explosives and can burn if in contact with combustible material. Upon combustion, the chemical can also produce toxic oxides of nitrogen. In 2013, a fertilizer plan in West, Texas reportedly containing as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, exploded after a fire broke out, killing 15 people and injuring 200 more.

Although the fire that ravaged the plant has since been contained, with residents given permission to return to their homes, three lawsuits have been filed against the company for negligence, as well as the potential health concerns faced by residents with the release of dangerous chemicals into the air and local waterways.

Although Director of Forsyth County Environmental Assistance and Protection Minor Barnette told Fox8 that the air quality near the plant had improved greatly since the beginning of fire, there has been little update on the status of local water supplies since the initial one given.

Soon after the fire ended, officials reportedly warned residents to stay away from local creeks due to chemical detection in the following statement: “City officials are warning the public to stay out of Muddy, Mill and Monarcas creeks downstream from the Winston Weaver Co. fertilizer plant and to keep pets and other animals out of the creeks due to elevated levels of chemicals in the water resulting from the fire at the plant.”

Though the air quality has been deemed “breathable” and residents have returned home, the fire at the Winston Weaver has still left lasting, negative impacts on a community forced to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice, confused as to how they could live so close to a plant holding a significant amount of dangerous chemicals, without ever being notified.

The chances of a fertilizer plant catching on fire are exploding are liable to happen anywhere in the nation and as such, affect any community who lives close by—however, African Americans are 75 percent more likely to near industrial facilities that produce hazardous waste than others, and more likely (along with other people of color or POC) to be exposed to air pollution. As such, they are more likely to suffer from asthma, cancer, etc. than other races.

As reported by the News&Observer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, “about 51 percent of the roughly 6,500 people who live within a mile of Winston Weaver are Black and 26 percent are Hispanic.”

The area within a mile of Winston Weaver is also reportedly in the “91st percentile nationally for exposure to fine particulate matter in the air, the 93rd percentile nationally for exposure to ozone, and the 92nd percentile for cancer risk from air quality.”

And this is not a coincidence, but by design, as is the case with many communities of color disproportionately located near industrial areas.

Geographical Racism in Winston-Salem

In 1904, a water reservoir cracked, and 800,000 gallons of water poured into the street, killing nine people and destroying eight houses. The area of destruction nicknamed “The Pond,” attracted African Americans after its rebuild as it was one of the few places they could find a place to live.

In June 1912, Winston-Salem’s Board of Aldermen enacted an ordinance that prevented Black people from owning or living on property in certain areas, as well as white people.

The topography of The pond created stagnant rainwater, which became home to industrial runoff from nearby factories. Through various practices enacted by city officials, Black people were unable to move out of their neighborhood or improve upon it, and The Pond became one of the worst neighborhoods within the city.

Although the 1912 ordinance was later ruled unauthorized and The Pond eventually underwent a “slum clearance project,” Winston-Salem continued to enact laws to divide the city by race and discourage white communities from allowing African Americans inside them.

This included the creation of a highway known as U.S. 52, which not only cut into the Black community located east of the highway, but also segregated Black residents from the white on the west. The Weaver fertilizer plan sits on the about a mile west of the highway, and a majority of the residents around the plant are reportedly low-income people of color.

At the time of its creation in 1939, the plant was located outside of city limits; however, when houses began to be built in the area, African Americans were more likely to be able to afford the area near the plant than others due to geographical racist practices.

A Legacy of Environmental Racism

Winston-Salem is not the only North Carolina city guilty of geographical and environmental racism and injustice. In Eastern North Carolina where the majority of industrial animal farms reside, communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted complain of contaminated water from hog waste and rancid smells from decomposing animals and rotten eggs.

A study from the North Carolina Medical Journal found that communities located near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have higher, “infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/ED visits of LBW infants.”

North Carolina is reportedly the second highest poultry producer in the country, and there are no restrictions for poultry operations as it pertains to waste dumping.

And to the northeast in Warren County, North Carolina, the state government decided that a poor, rural Black community would be the sight for toxic waste dumping in 1982. Although residents protested for six weeks, the toxic waste was eventually deposited in a landfill in the community.

However, Ben Chavis, the leader of the movement who coined the term “environmental racism” after being arrested, sparked a national movement. Although the battle was lost in Warren County, across the nation Black Americans and POC are fighting again a history of environmental racism, first stipulated by geographical racism during an era of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

The first step is to recognize this legacy, in order to prevent further industrialization efforts in Black communities—as with the Winston Weaver plant.

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