‘You can’t win for losing’: Inside Sampson County, NC’s environmental nightmare

In this 2017 file photo, young hogs owned by Smithfield Foods gather around a water source. The Chinese-owned company, which is one of the largest employers in Sampson County, NC, has been the subject of multiple "hog nuisance" lawsuits because the smells, the noise, and health concerns. But hogs are just one of the environmental concerns in this rural NC county. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

By Billy Ball

November 29, 2023

Biden’s promise to boost rural infrastructure meets a real test in Sampson County. The eastern NC county is beset by pollution from hog farms, industrial operations, and one of the “most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.” 

NORTH CAROLINA — A dead vulture hangs by its feet, tied to a street sign on Chesters Road in Sampson County. 

It’s there because locals believe the decomposing scavenger will deter other vultures. Sometimes, especially in the summer, the carrion birds descend like a plague on the Snow Hill area of Sampson County, a predominantly Black community that’s within retching distance of the largest landfill in NC. When it’s hot and humid in the summer, the vultures are so thick that the trees look black. 

The birds are the least of locals’ worries. 

The 1,400-acre landfill smells like hell. It gets in your lungs and steals your breath. On a bright, clear day, it can give you a headache and make you nauseous. When it’s hot, humid, or rainy, the smell is overwhelming.  

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Worse still, the landfill—which ranks second in the nation for emissions of the greenhouse gas methane—is contaminated with PFAS. PFAS are synthetic compounds used in nonstick pans, firefighter foam, cosmetics, and other products. It’s linked to cancers, birth abnormalities, high cholesterol and other ailments, but until this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency was silent on regulating it. 

In March, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who’s from NC, called it “one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.”

The federal regulations, which wouldn’t go into effect until 2026, are late but not unwelcome. Testing in almost 50 water systems in NC has reportedly found high levels of PFAS over the last five years. That’s the case in about 45% of the nation’s drinking water, according to federal regulators. It attacks your thyroid, your liver, and your kidneys. And it’s an open question what treatment systems are best for filtering out this “forever chemical,” so named because it doesn’t break down in the human body or the environment.  

PFAS pollution is just one of the crises here. Sampson County—population 58,000— is beset by environmental nightmares, locals say. There’s the landfill, the poultry and pork farms (including the massive Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods plant), and multiple industrial operations that locals say are noisy, ugly, and making them sick. 

There’s a few dozen hogs per person here. To dispose of the waste, farms have been spraying it onto fields. Neighbors say it’s giving them respiratory problems. There’s science behind it, including studies from 2018 and 2022 that found people living close to animal farming operations are more likely to get sick, sometimes very sick. 

A small UNC-Chapel Hill study published in 2020 also found PFAS in surface water around the landfill. 

The well water that thousands of people here depend on—particularly in the poorer, rural areas—is making them sick too, locals say. But unlike other areas of the county, which have gradually been connected to the county water system, most of the low-income folks have been left to protect themselves against rust, iron, arsenic, and other harmful things that are turning up in their well water. 

Michigan has Flint. North Carolina has a lot of Flints, and the biggest might be Sampson County. 

‘You can’t win for losing’

“We have a story to tell in Sampson County and nobody’s paying any attention to us,” says Sherri White-Williamson. 

White-Williamson is a native of the area, the daughter of two high school teachers—one a World War II veteran who taught her to get involved in her community. She worked for the EPA and other federal offices before returning to Sampson County. Now, she leads a local nonprofit called Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN). She has her work cut out for her. 

EJCAN is helping state officials find locals in the Snow Hill area—not to be confused with the incorporated town of the same name in nearby Greene County—who could benefit from a $1 million grant from President Biden’s administration. The grant’s meant to test the well water and, possibly, help find a solution. If anything, it’s just a start.  

Testing in this broad, eastern NC county has been slow. State officials are looking for volunteers. They’ve gone door-to-door. But many don’t trust the scientists and regulators showing up. They also don’t trust what comes out of their taps. If they have the money, which many of them don’t, they rely on bottled water. 

The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and researchers have confirmed PFAS contamination in the area, although state regulators have not made a final determination on the source. Most are pointing at the privately-operated landfill, which is known to have PFAS in it.  For now, the state’s administering bottled water to homeowners with polluted water, although PFAS contaminants aren’t just harmful in drinking water. They can also travel through the air.  

Then there’s the pigs. Smithfield Foods and other hog farms make up a powerful economic force around here. Pork accounts for more than 6,100 jobs in Sampson County and Smithfield is the largest single employer in the county. 

The people who live next to hog farms might be miserable, but the political pull of pork is immense. When locals began winning huge multi-million dollar jury awards from hog farmers working for Chinese-owned Smithfield, Republican state legislators intervened on the farmers’ behalf, rewriting statutes to all but ban such lawsuits. 

“You can’t win for losing,” White-Williamson says when talking about the state legislature. 

EJCAN, a local nonprofit looking for solutions in polluted Sampson County, regularly meets in a room at El Arca de Jehova in Clinton, a Spanish-language church.

Maggie Underwood Royal isn’t surprised by the politics of it. A retired nurse and Sampson County native, Royal says she’s been asking county commissioners to do something about the water for more than a decade. 

She lives off Lakewood School Road, just southeast of Salemburg and a few miles away from the landfill as the vulture flies. Royal and neighbors are skeptical of the foul-smelling water coming out of their wells. 

“It has impacted my life,” she says. “My water’s rusty. I don’t wear white clothes because you may get a couple washings before you get some spots from that rust, before your shirts turn yellow.”

When there’s company, Royal waits for them to leave before taking a shower. The water stinks. It tastes bad, too. Her daughter, a local teacher, gets about one school year before her shirts are too discolored to wear out. 

“The thing about the water is that it is a lot of politics,” she says. “Our road is predominantly Black, maybe 60-70% Black now. We have a few Latino families, a few white families, a lot of families that rent. There have been promises of water, but it doesn’t come.”

On Sundays, she goes to Snow Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which is on the doorstep of the landfill. Sensors, set up with the help of EJCAN, are positioned on church grounds to keep an eye on what people are breathing in. 

“We don’t do activities with our kids like we used to,” she says.

“As far as the chemical effects, quite a few of my church family have had cancer,” Royal says. “I can’t swear that it’s from the chemicals, but there are too many that are really close to that landfill for it to not have had some kind of effect on them.”

Help from Biden

President Joe Biden talks to a child during a visit to Fort Liberty, N.C., in June 2023. The president’s promises of rural infrastructure boosts face a real test in Sampson County, a polluted rural county with serious water issues. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Back in 2022, the Biden administration awarded a $13.2 million grant—via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP)—that helped get the county water system extended into the nearby Ivanhoe community in Sampson County. Sampson is one of at least 86 NC counties getting funding for water infrastructure from the ARP—and local leaders say such state and federal lifelines are essential, because NC—like many states—can’t afford to build that kind of infrastructure in low-density communities. 

But that water system didn’t extend to Snow Hill or other far-flung parts of Sampson County. And it’s been slow-going getting folks to allow their water to be tested—the first step in possibly applying for more aid. 

White-Williamson says locals are distrustful. The landfill’s been a nuisance for 50 years. And county commissioners have come and gone promising to make things better, to connect more rural homes to county water.

“There’s anxiety, depression, a feeling of just giving up,” White-Williamson told us.

They’ve had some wins. Locals fended off a shipment of creosote-contaminated soil to the Sampson landfill last year. There have been losses too. Many were angered in October when the NC DEQ issued an air quality permit for a new gas burning operation at the dump. 

UNC researchers—who are partnering with EJCAN to try to address the pollution—unveiled a dashboard this month that allows Sampson County residents to see any publicly available water quality data in their area.  

The results are spotty, depending where you look. Some homeowners live in areas with high concentrations of one or more potentially toxic substances. In many places, there aren’t enough tests in recent years to know one way or the other.  

County residents like her say they’ve been waiting years for a connection to government water. Some have been told they’d have to foot the bill to connect. Royal says she was quoted about $500 for the hook-up, plus the cost of running pipe to her home, and that was more than a decade ago. The price would be higher today. Royal also spent about $1,500 for a filtration system that’s past its expiration date. 

She says putting down cash like that isn’t going to work for people like her who come from working-class Black families. 

“That’s a lot of money for people who go to work to take care of themselves,” she says. “We weren’t born with a silver spoon.”

‘That’s my legacy’

Naturally, EJCAN gives away their own branded water bottles—colored crystal blue—which is like a universal sign of good intentions in a place with a water crisis. 

At the group’s community meeting in November, held in a Spanish-language church in Clinton, they give away door prizes like an EJCAN hat and water bottle to the first people in the door. Today, it’s me. 

They have a prayer beforehand, asking God for wisdom and the power to help them make change. Offstage, a little girl in sparkly red boots plays. Later, White-Williamson takes me on a “toxic tour” in her van, rolling past Smithfield and the neighboring homes, past miles of hog and poultry farms, through the Snow Hill community, and to the landfill. I feel like I’m going to vomit.

The smell comes in waves. White-Williamson can tell whether it’s a hog farm, a poultry farm, the landfill, or any other industrial operation by the smell. The worst might be the neighborhoods outside Smithfield Foods. The stench is nearly unbearable. 

There is some renewed optimism lately, though. White-Williamson says locals are hopeful that the Biden infrastructure funding can make a difference. In October, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order creating a task force to take up environmental justice needs in the state, advising state agencies who regulate pollution, roads, health care, and more. White-Williamson was one of Cooper’s guests at the signing. 

But she says there’s “mixed emotions” in communities like hers. She hopes state and federal officials behind the recent influx of infrastructure funding from the Biden administration won’t dismiss the needs of rural communities like hers who don’t always have the shovel-ready plans that lead to fast, impactful projects tailor-made for news headlines. She worries rural places will be overshadowed by big cities when it comes time to pass out grants.

“We’ve got to understand that in rural communities, particularly, there are housing issues,” she said. “There are transportation issues; there are air issues; there are water issues; and we’ve got to come together as a community to do better for the community.

But I think that there also needs to be a better understanding at a federal level that rural environmental injustice is a lot different from what they see in cities. The impression that rural spaces are open and free and fresh air and all of that is not the case at all.”

Why not leave, then? White-Williamson says her parents taught her better than to run from a fight for her community. When I ask Royal that question, she doesn’t hesitate with her answer. 

“It’s home, it’s family, it’s paid for,” she says. 

“My family worked hard to keep that property, to make sure the taxes were paid on that property so that I could have something that belongs to me, so that I would have something to pass on to my children from generation to generation. I’m not willing to give it up because my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents worked hard to get it, to try to keep it. That’s my legacy.”

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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