The Contested Swamps of Robeson County
A behemoth natural-gas facility, sitting atop a disrupted archeological site, represents the latest environmental challenge for one of the state’s most diverse yet burdened counties. But the debate over history, benefit, and protection is far more complicated than it first appears.
Wakulla, North Carolina is an unincorporated expanse of modest homes and soybean fields, scattered along flat two-lane roads and crisscrossed by wetlands. Its 200 residents, according to the census, are all Indigenous, which in Robeson County means Lumbee and Tuscarora.
Just past the speed-limit sign sit two buildings that form Wakulla’s heart: Oxendine Elementary School, whose slogan is “Brave hearts, Brave minds, Brave strong,” and Cherokee Chapel Holiness Methodist Church, founded in 1914 to minister to American Indians. The congregation initially worshipped under a brush arbor, until two men and their mules hauled long-leaf pine logs from the swamp to build a more permanent structure.
Much of Wakulla’s history lies underground. The soil is thick with artifacts, including ceramics, that likely indicate the site of at least one Indigenous village. “You don’t take a bunch of pottery with you when you go hunting or fishing,” said anthropologist Stan Knick, who taught for 30 years at UNC Pembroke.
This summer, Piedmont Natural Gas, a Duke Energy subsidiary, opened a facility in Wakulla that stores one billion cubic feet of natural gas, cooled to liquid form and concentrated 600-fold. Two pipelines connect it to the existing natural-gas infrastructure. Piedmont says the giant tank, and its 10 to 12 permanent employees, will assure a steady fuel supply when winter temperatures drive up demand.
By the time it announced the project in July 2018, Piedmont had logged the trees on much of its 675-acre property, according to Google Earth satellite images. An archeological team, commissioned by the utility, then combed the site. They cataloged artifacts from across the millennia, including ceramics that might date back to the Early Woodland period, starting in 1000 B.C.
But those objects had been ruined—“destroyed or obscured by the clearing and grubbing of the land,” said the survey report. Logging had jumbled the archaeological record, it said of one site, “making it impossible to discern distinct cultural horizons.” A few items had survived intact, but “the majority of artifacts are out of context and do not possess significant information about the prehistoric past.” Given the irreversible damage, the consultants encouraged Piedmont to proceed with construction “without further archaeological considerations.”
Jefferson Currie II stands near the Lumber River // Photo by Roderico Díaz
It was Jefferson Currie II who discovered the report. Currie, 49, is a member of the Lumbee tribe, which is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, though the federal government doesn’t recognize it as sovereign. He is also the Lumber Riverkeeper, paid by the non-profit Winyah Rivers Alliance to advocate for the local watershed.
His is a formidable job. Robesonians sometimes describe their county, which runs from just below Fayetteville to the South Carolina line, as a “sacrifice zone”: a favored location for industries that would be (and have been) run out of more affluent places. Factory-scale poultry farms broadcast an ammonia stench and raise the specter of water pollution. A wood-pellet plant, soon to open on a previously contaminated brownfield, has sparked a legal battle over wastewater discharges. Until its cancellation last year, the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline was supposed to terminate in Prospect, an Indigenous community five miles from Wakulla. Many local leaders support these projects, saying the county needs jobs and that the economic benefits outweigh the environmental burdens.
It’s hard for opponents to mount a proper defense, in part because of everything else Robeson County contends with. The county has too few doctors, too many preventable hospital stays, and more than its share of low-birthweight babies. Violent crime is high. Almost half the children live in poverty. Covid-19 is running so rampant that the hospital in Lumberton, the county seat, brought in a mobile morgue in August. An index of health outcomes, published by the University of Wisconsin, ranks Robeson last among North Carolina counties.
Moreover, Robeson never fully recovered from Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018. The two storms hollowed neighborhoods, flooded schools, and foreshadowed what climate change might inflict in the future.
It’s no coincidence, say organizers, that controversial industries flock to a county that’s 43 percent Indigenous, 24 percent Black, and 9 percent Latino—the very definition of what policymakers call an “environmental justice” (or “EJ”) community. “If it’s an issue with pollution in Robeson County, it’s EJ, period,” Currie told me.
Jefferson Currie II holds sand from the Lumber River // Photo by Roderico Díaz
Currie and I spent two days this summer traveling around Robeson County: collecting water samples, dodging chicken trucks, and listening to Willy Mitchell singing “Kill’n Your Mind” (I seen some people laughing at the other / Just because they were living their Native way). One afternoon, we pulled into Wakulla and saw the natural-gas facility across a scrubby field. Its tank rose fourteen stories high, too distant to look menacing but by far the tallest structure around.
Critics call it a risky operation: A similar Piedmont plant in Huntersville, north of Charlotte, contaminated the soil and groundwater. And major accidents, while rare, can be dramatic. An explosion at a liquified natural-gas plant in Plymouth, Washington injured five workers in 2014 and forced hundreds to evacuate. A 2004 blast in Algeria killed 27.
But it was the archaeological damage that made Currie’s voice crack with rage and sorrow. “It could have been some of my folks,” he told me. “I don’t know who lived there. But what I do know is it’s in our community. And so it was some of our folks. Because I know that we’ve lived here forever.”
Robeson County, with its long history of racial tension, has become a crucible of 21st-century environmental justice struggles. N.C. State University environmental scientist Ryan Emanuel, who is Lumbee, describes it as a series of waves. “The first one knocks you down,” he said. “The second one tumbles you around. And you never regain your footing.”
Eastern North Carolina has long been an environmental justice hotbed, from Warren County’s protests over a toxic-waste landfill in the 1980s to the more recent federal lawsuits over industrial hog farms. In Robeson, the battles have been raw and intense, a reflection of the county’s unique geography and past.
Start with geography. The swamps, in particular. They are the distinguishing feature of the landscape: dense, seasonally flooded bald-cypress forests with wooden knees that jut from the soil. The swamps have provided fish, game, medicinal plants—and cover for Indigenous people resisting colonization.
Though Robeson County sits just 60 miles inland, much of it was “relatively unknown by surveyors and tax collectors and mapmakers until the turn of the 19th century,” said Emanuel. Some parts held out even longer, remaining beyond the reach of law enforcement and the courts. When Henry Berry Lowry led a guerilla campaign against the white power structure starting in the 1860s, his knowledge of the terrain helped him evade capture. “Very few people traverse that swamp,” an official testified before Congress in 1871. “There are very few who know where the islands are, or where their caves and dens are.”
By the 20th century, the colonizers had advanced. They drained the swamps, though many remain, and set up an unusual Jim Crow system. The courthouse had segregated restrooms for Blacks, whites, and American Indians. At one point, Robeson had six separate and unequal school systems. And when natural gas arrived in Eastern North Carolina in the 1950s, much of the infrastructure—the main pipeline trunk, a major artery, and a compressor station—converged in Prospect, just as 20th-century highways often ran through Black neighborhoods.
Homes above the Lumber River in Lumberton, NC // Photo by Roderico Díaz
“That was during the Jim Crow Era,” said Emanuel. “It’s not that the developer said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna stick it to minority people and put it right in their community.’ I think that was so deeply ingrained in their psyche that it was not even a question of where are we going to put this pipeline. Just like there was not a question of where are we going to put the Durham Freeway.”
North Carolina’s environmental justice movement ramped up in the 1980s. At the time, Robeson County was hurting. Black and Indigenous workers suffered double-digit unemployment. The drug trade had escalated, and American Indians bore the brunt of the arrests. Two Tuscarora men, Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs, made headlines in 1988 when they held 19 people hostage at the Robesonian newspaper office. “The Blacks and Indians are being persecuted, and I’m tired of it,” said Hatcher. “I’m ready to die here today.”
High-profile murders, many unsolved, roiled the county. Among the victims was Julian Pierce, a Lumbee lawyer running for a Superior Court judgeship against the white district attorney. Shortly before he was shot three times, also in 1988, in his Wakulla home, Pierce waved off pleas to hire a bodyguard. “They can kill me,” he told his campaign manager, “but they can’t eat me.” (Historian Malinda Maynor Lowery vividly chronicles this era in her book The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle.)
Through these events, a triracial group of Robesonians worked for justice, cognizant that they were not immune to the violence. “My life was so threatened, I couldn’t even let my kids answer my telephone,” Reverend Mac Legerton, a white United Church of Christ minister, told me.
Reverend Mac Legerton looks at lingering storm damage // Photo by Roderico Díaz
“All of us kept going, even in the face of fear,” added Sallie McLean, who would later become the mayor of Maxton. She, too, received menacing calls: “‘N-----, you out of place,’ ‘We’re gonna burn that tin can down,’ and all those things. It got to a place, I just told my mother, ‘Please do not answer the phone, Mom. Let the machine pick it up. Don’t answer.’”
The activist infrastructure was coming together when a company that would soon be called GSX announced plans in 1984 to treat and discharge up to 500,000 gallons of hazardous waste daily into the Lumber River. The waste, received from companies across the region, would include pesticides, paint finishers, and chemicals from pharmaceutical and electronics manufacturing. After treatment, it would be discharged upstream from Lumberton, which draws its drinking water from the river. GSX and federal and state regulators called the discharge safe.
“The river is so much part of our life,” said Donna Chavis, a Lumbee elder. During her childhood, in the summers, her family spent Sundays on the water. “That would be our bath for the start of the week ... And people ate out of the river. They boated on the river ... So the battle wasn’t about just stopping something. It was about saving the river.” Chavis, who is married to Legerton, now works for Friends of the Earth.
Donna Chavis stands near the banks of the Lumber River // Photo by Roderico Díaz
The seven-year fight to stop GSX crossed county and racial lines. Critics packed public meetings, including one at UNC Pembroke that drew 3,000 people. Native Americans in tribal regalia drummed and danced in protest. Activists framed the issue in environmental justice terms. “That’s obviously why GSX came here,” Legerton told a shivering crowd at a winter rally in 1986. “It’s because we’re ... the poorest area of North Carolina.” (GSX denied this.)
They took their case to Raleigh, too, distributing jars filled with river water to state officials. They found sympathetic legislators, who in 1987 passed a law requiring companies to dilute waste beyond what GSX considered economically practical. The Environmental Protection Agency, at the company’s request, moved to strip North Carolina of its authority to regulate hazardous waste. But a federal administrative law judge ruled that North Carolina was within its prerogative. In 1990, the EPA backed down. GSX pulled the plug.
It helped, say Chavis and Legerton, that GSX had virtually no local support. Today, the battles are far more divisive.
The intervening years hammered Robeson County. The North American Free Trade Act, signed into law in 1993, helped shut down the factories that had made it possible for someone without a college degree to earn a decent living. Over a decade’s time, Robeson shed between 8,000 and 10,600 manufacturing jobs.
“I’ve seen our people losing their homes, their farms,” said Pembroke Mayor Charles Gregory Cummings. “Their kids couldn’t go—they didn’t have the money to send them to school. I’ve seen them having heart attacks, committing suicide ... And it shouldn’t have never happened.”
Cummings’ enduring quest has been to replace those jobs. “I go to sleep thinking it and I wake up thinking it,” he said. He spent two decades heading Robeson County’s Office of Economic Development, where he helped bring in employers like Sanderson Farms’ $140 million poultry processing plant.
By the reckoning of local recruiters, Robeson has a lot going for it: a state university and community college, two interstate highways, inexpensive houses, and quiet country living.
What’s missing, they say, is reliable natural gas. North Carolina has one interstate pipeline, which runs through the western part of the state. Moving the gas eastward for industrial use is expensive and sometimes prohibitive, said Channing Jones, the county’s current economic development director. “And we limit our ability, on the eastern side of North Carolina, to attract certain types of businesses.” Plus, he said, if the western line fails, “that will create major disruptions.”
That’s why Jones, like his predecessor Cummings, was eager for the arrival of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an $8 billion partnership between Duke Energy and Dominion Energy that won conditional federal approval in 2017. It would have carried natural gas from the West Virginia fracking fields, through Virginia and North Carolina, to the terminus in Prospect. Most of that fuel would have gone not to industry, but rather to utilities to generate electricity.
“A new source of natural gas would bring with it the opportunity to enable major manufacturing to locate in the eastern part of the state,” said a 2017 document prepared by Dominion. The pipeline, it said, could attract aerospace, food, lumber, and automotive companies, along with defense contractors. Not every county would benefit equally, it explained: “the potential for Project-induced growth in Robeson County is low.”
Cummings considered that assessment overly pessimistic. “Whoever wrote that doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “Somebody falsified something or another.”
A view of Active Energy’s pellet plant // Photo by Roderico Díaz
According to the environmental impact statement, the pipeline would have degraded wetlands and potentially triggered leaks and explosions, while also increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Critics, looking beyond local impacts, worried the new infrastructure would promote fossil fuels over renewables at a time of accelerating climate change. “We would have been locked into no less than 30 years of fracked gas,” said Donna Chavis.
In a draft version of the environmental impact statement, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) analyzed the pipeline from an environmental justice perspective. It found “no evidence” that the pipeline “would cause a disproportionate share of high and adverse environmental or socioeconomic impacts on any racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group.”
Emanuel, the N.C. State scientist, re-crunched the numbers and came to the opposite conclusion. The pipeline, he reported, would pass “preferentially” through ancestral territories of North Carolina’s tribes, while “skirting adjacent whiter, wealthier areas.” One-fourth of the state’s Indigenous population, 30,000 people, live in census tracts along the route. “There is no other energy project currently under federal review that stands to impact as many American Indians,” Emanuel wrote to FERC.
FERC said it consulted with several tribes about the pipeline, but not the Lumbee. Federally unrecognized tribes, the agency wrote, “are not ‘Indian tribes’ as defined by the regulations.”
The Lumbee Tribal Council, objecting to the exclusion and worried about tainted water and desecrated sacred sites, called on regulators in February 2018 to deny or suspend pipeline permits until “full and meaningful government-to-government consultation took place with all Indian nations.” Duke and Dominion tried a blunter approach. As N.C. Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg later reported, the utilities offered the Lumbee and three other tribes $1 million each—but only if the tribes backed down from their challenges.
By a narrow vote that June, the Tribal Council passed a resolution endorsing the utilities’ offer. Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. refused to sign. “I took an oath to uphold the Lumbee way of life and that includes protecting our voice,” he said in a message posted on Facebook.
The other North Carolina tribe, the Haliwa-Saponi, voted to decline the utilities’ offer, according to N.C. Policy Watch. The Virginia-based Monacan and Rappahannock tribes withdrew their objections to the pipeline.
By then, opposition had sprung up all along the 600-mile corridor. There were protests, lawsuits, and regulatory challenges. “In Indian culture, our land constitutes part of our identity,” a young climate activist named Jorden Revels testified at a meeting in Lumberton hosted by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “Many people still fish on these waterways. A lot of people use them for recreational uses, including myself. These are cultural resources that are being threatened, and not just the cultural resources but our Native identity. But Duke and Dominion ... ”
Revels paused. Their chin and lower lip trembled. “But Duke and Dominion do not seem to care about these things, which is completely evident by the lack of consultation.”
Jorden Revels crouches by the Lumber River // Photo by Roderico Díaz
Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby, who works for Dominion, declined an interview request.
In the end, opposition forced Duke and Dominion to drop their plans. “A series of legal challenges to the project’s federal and state permits has caused significant project cost increases and timing delays,” the companies said in July 2020.
President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, Dan Broulette, was blunter in a statement: “The well-funded, obstructionist, environmental lobby has killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”
The cancellation buoyed environmentalists. “It felt like a weight was lifted,” said Revels, who now works for the clean-energy group NC WARN. “And then breaking down in tears of happiness and joy, washing over like a baptizing of relief.”
But the battle lines quickly shifted. “While everyone’s attention was focused on stopping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” said Emanuel, “Piedmont and Duke Energy sprung the liquified natural-gas plans on the community.”
When I called Wendy Moore in August, she made it clear that she considers herself a conservative. “I am not a Green Deal kind of gal,” the Lumbee Tribal Council member told me. Like many Lumbees, she voted for Donald Trump and still supports the former president. She works in the utility industry and understands the need for diverse energy sources.
Wendy Moore near the Piedmont natural gas facility // Photo by Roderico Díaz
“But at the same time,” she said, “I know that these companies target people they consider to be a reasonable collateral.”
Moore was new to the council in 2019 when Jeff Currie, the Lumber Riverkeeper, told her about the survey of the land in Wakulla where Piedmont Natural Gas was building its liquified gas facility. That’s the report that revealed how logging had “destroyed or obscured” the archaeological record. Using date-stamped satellite images, Currie later showed council members how Piedmont had cleared the property before investigating what lay below.
The report, commissioned by Piedmont and prepared by the global consulting firm ERM, distressed Moore, whose district includes Wakulla. The tribe had been fighting for federal recognition since the late 19th century, and she worried that the scrambled record would set them back further. During one meeting last year, she broke down while talking to Piedmont representatives. “And I just told them: ‘How dare you? How dare you? You may own the land, but you don’t own the history. That was ours, and you destroyed it.’”
Wendy Moore puts her hand on a tree stump near land cleared for Piedmont’s natural gas facility // Photo by Roderico Díaz
At a Tribal Council meeting in August 2020, Moore read aloud a resolution opposing the gas facility and criticizing Piedmont for doing “irreparable harm” without consulting the tribe. It passed unanimously.
Piedmont spokeswoman Jennifer Sharpe did not dispute the satellite images, but added that the property had also been logged and farmed before the utility bought it. She told me that Piedmont “made numerous attempts to communicate with the tribe,” but acknowledged there were no formal consultations. She would not detail the attempts, citing respect for the tribe. “Let’s say there was a scenario where we called and they didn’t call back,” she said. “Or we said this and they said that. We’re not going to list those [instances] and go over them.”
“I know that Piedmont wants to have an excellent relationship with the tribe,” Sharpe added. “It’s one of our biggest goals ... We just look forward to all future conversations with the tribe and we respect their heritage and their purpose.”
Brian Weisker, who leads the operation of Piedmont’s natural-gas system, told the N.C. Utilities Commission in March that the Wakulla project is “absolutely critical” to meeting winter demand, “particularly in view of the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.” And the company says it is helping Robesonians by buying fuel during the cheap summer months and storing it in Wakulla for cold-weather use.
“When we have things like the polar vortex, or God forbid the example of what just happened in Texas last winter,” Sharpe said, “not only do we have enough supply for the people of Robeson County, but it’s at that low price.” She called energy affordability a “social justice” issue.
Even before the Tribal Council’s action, opposition was building. In November 2019, several dozen people in winter jackets and baseball caps rallied inside Oxendine Elementary School. They sang, held giant puppets, and listened to landowners threatened by gas development. A graphic novel-style banner, titled “The United States of Fracking,” stretched the length of the gymnasium.
“This is not political,” Moore told them. “This is reclaiming what is inherently ours as people of the earth.”
Currie briefed the audience on the archaeological survey, and the contamination state regulators found in 2008 at Piedmont’s Huntersville site near Charlotte. “This facility is between two swamps,” he said of Wakulla. “Those swamps empty into Lumber River, which is drinking water for Lumberton. And swimming water. And fishing water. And canoeing water. And baptizing water.”
(In an interview, Sharpe acknowledged the past contamination. “Piedmont has modified its practices significantly as the environmental regulations have evolved,” she said.)
Later that windy day, they marched outside the facility. A Lumbee drummer performed the American Indian Movement’s “AIM Song,” popularized during the 1973 occupation of the Wounded Knee massacre site.
“We had all kinds of activities planned for that place,” said Donna Chavis. “Everybody was all wired up and ready to go.”
“Then COVID hit, and things just fell completely flat,” said Jorden Revels. “That mass-trauma event that we were all going through at the time—it was hard to focus on anything in our lives, much less this other large existential threat.”
“We weren’t going to put people at risk,” Chavis said. “So that was a year and a half that we lost.”
As North Carolina reopens, the organizing has geared back up. But the fight is no longer against a construction project. Since just before Labor Day, the Wakulla facility has been running at full capacity.
Robeson County is just 90 minutes from Raleigh. For some residents, though, the state government feels far away. They say officials and regulators don’t understand what it’s like to live in a crucible, and aren’t protecting them from the cumulative effects of pollution, energy infrastructure, and hurricanes.
They know that Gov. Roy Cooper and his Department of Environmental Quality have advocated for a green economy. In 2019, following an executive order from Cooper, DEQ released a Clean Energy Plan containing detailed recommendations for carbon reduction and renewable power. “Historically marginalized individuals,” the plan said, would help chart the future.
The agency’s former secretary, Michael Regan, created an environmental justice advisory board in 2018 that gave Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color more direct access to policymakers. Regan headed DEQ until this year, when President Joe Biden tapped him to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
These good intentions, say organizers, have not been matched by consistent action. Regan prided himself on being a consensus builder, but those in the trenches found consensus hard to embrace when the other side held all the economic power. Organizers like Donna Chavis wanted Regan’s agency to harness every available tool, including federal civil-rights law, to aggressively protect communities like hers.
Some Robesonians were so disappointed in the Cooper administration’s environmental justice efforts that they bit their tongues while Regan’s confirmation as EPA administrator breezed through the U.S. Senate. Chavis opposed him publicly. “Michael set a floor of what DEQ can do but didn’t reach for the ceiling,” she told The New York Times.
The feeling of being unheard erupts periodically. In 2019, the British company Active Energy Group applied for an air permit to run a wood-pellet factory in Lumberton. The processed pellets, also called “biomass,” are burned in power plants instead of coal to produce electricity. The European Union classifies biomass as renewable, a notion some scientists challenge.
“The American South [has] emerged as Europe’s primary source of biomass imports,” CNN reported in a July investigation. “Europe is not reducing emissions by burning American trees—it’s just outsourcing them to the United States.”
Construction near Piedmont's natural gas facility // Photo by Roderico Díaz
Active Energy says its new technology will differ radically from North Carolina’s other biomass operations. The pellets will be crafted from forestry waste rather than whole trees. They’re designed to burn alongside coal in existing power plants, reducing sulfur dioxide and other emissions. “We are trying to create a next-generation pellet,” said CEO Michael Rowan. “It was always our key mandate that it had to be an environmentally friendly solution.”
The technology is in what Rowan calls the “proof of concept” stage. Because of its untestedness, and the plant’s location on a previously contaminated industrial site, some residents fear potential air and water pollution. (Winyah Rivers Alliance alleged in a lawsuit this year that Active Energy discharged wastewater containing heavy metals without a proper permit. The company denied this and said it has always followed the rules.)
“There’s too many unknowns,” said Henry Brewer, a county Board of Education member and recreational fisherman. “How’s it affecting in the fish? The alligator? The crocodile, the beaver, the turtle?”
In South Lumberton, which is majority Black and was walloped by the hurricanes, residents and property owners say they’ve endured too much already. Less than two miles away sits a retired power plant where Duke Energy is excavating 2.5 million tons of toxic coal ash.
DEQ had scheduled a permit hearing for the pellet plant in March 2020, but had to cancel because of the pandemic. Residents wanted to wait until in-person hearings were viable again, rather than holding a virtual meeting, because so many Robesonians lack broadband access.
The agency announced an online hearing anyway. “DEQ, like many state and local entities, has used remote meetings accessible by telephone or internet to allow the public to safely participate [while] meeting the required regulatory timelines,” deputy secretary Sharon Martin wrote me in an email.
The virtual hearing, held in June 2020, was a technical nightmare. Many who signed up to speak couldn’t be located when their turn came. One said he was bumped from the call five times, even with a high-speed connection.
Those who navigated the technology overwhelmingly opposed the permit. “I’m speaking for South Lumberton,” said Adrienne Kennedy, a fourth-generation resident. “For years, from Matthew to Florence to Covid, we walk our neighborhood and check on residents that don’t have phones, that don’t have computer and Internet access, that need resources, that can’t be on this call today… We are tired of being the dumping or the sacrifice zone for a company or an industry that wants to see if something works.”
Ron Gaskins, the plant’s director of operations, spoke too and described the neighbors’ pleas as “personal opinions.” In August 2020, DEQ granted Active Energy the permit. Rowan hopes to be manufacturing pellets by early 2022.
The day DEQ issued the permit, Regan issued a statement that seemed to lament his agency’s action. “We must strengthen our state laws and regulations to be more inclusive of communities of color and tribal concerns before a location is chosen and well before a permit application is submitted,” he said. “This process highlights the allegations of systemic racism that zoning and business-friendly regulations perpetuate against communities of color. An air permit should not be the first time that a community becomes aware of a proposed facility.”
As with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the liquified natural gas facility, Robeson’s activists have framed the pellet plant as both a local and a global issue. The problem, they say, is not just the location of the facility, but also the industry’s contribution to global climate change, which disproportionally hurts the poor. DEQ’s own Clean Energy Plan, they note, singles out wood pellets as a carbon-intensive industry that “does not advance NC’s clean energy economy.”
In May 2021, representatives of several local environmental groups, along with Friends of the Earth and the North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance, gathered in Raleigh for a protest they called “Where’s Cooper?” They noted that state government has awarded incentives to the biomass industry, including $500,000 to Active Energy. “Gov. Cooper, I call on you to follow the science,” Chavis said at a press conference at the state legislature. “Supplying the globe with the false solution of wood biomass pellets adds to our climate crisis.”
Cooper’s office declined an interview request. In emails, spokesman Ford Porter detailed the governor’s response to Robeson County’s environmental needs, including hurricane resiliency projects like floodgates, drainage, and safer public housing. “Too often, these industries are located in communities with few economic alternatives,” Porter wrote. “One of the best ways to ensure environmental justice is to ensure that underserved communities have the resources they need to grow and attract jobs.”
More broadly, Porter wrote, Cooper’s DEQ “has worked to make environmental justice a part of every aspect of their work.” But the administration’s power is constrained, he added, because permitting decisions “are subject to requirements set by the federal government and the state legislature and are not within the discretion of the Governor’s Office.” Issues like global greenhouse-gas emissions, Porter wrote, are “outside the scope of the environmental permitting reviews.”
As for the biomass plant, Porter said the governor prefers “zero-emitting technologies” like solar and wind, but that “regulators are still confined to operate within established legal requirements.”
The fault lines in Robeson County are not defined by race. Several leading boosters of large industrial projects are Lumbee, including Mayor Cummings and economic-development director Jones. Both say they want clean industry, but add that the major advances of the past century required some disruption.
When electricity came to rural areas, said Cummings, “everybody went, ‘Woo, God, that’s gonna kill. You got these electrical lines running above our homes and all. They’re not going to be environmentally friendly.’ And they’re talking about the birds and the woodpeckers and all of this. And you’re going to be cutting some trees.” But electrification, he said, “has generated economic development at its strongest.”
“If you’re going to continue to grow to be the strongest nation in the world,” Cummings said, “yes, you have to fight the environmentalists again.”
Other Lumbees see an arc dating back to the arrival of white Europeans, who tried to flush out Henry Berry Lowry’s rebels from their “caves and dens,” and later drained swamps that had provided sustenance for millennia. “We’re fighting against the forces of settler colonialism,” said NC WARN’s Revels. “And unless we’re able to really stop this, we’re gonna lose things that we’ll never be able to get back, including part of our identity.”
Toward the end of my Robeson County trip, I spent a day with Brewer, the school-board member. We met at his home in Saddletree, a rural community outside Lumberton. Brewer grew up on a nearby farm that produced tobacco, corn, soybeans, cucumbers, and peppers. He worked in the fields after the school day, and on Saturdays his father rewarded him by paying a farmworker to take him onto the Lumber River. Now, retired from a career at DuPont, Brewer takes his own two grandchildren out in his 16-foot aluminum motorboat.
Henry Brewer fishing in the Lumber River // Photo by Roderico Díaz
“The most peaceful, pleasurable time in my life is to be out in a boat on the water and to listen to nature,” said Brewer, who is Lumbee. “And to give you some background of our belief: You catch a fish, you eat the fish, or you return the fish back. It’s not something that you go out for the sport of it and destroy it.”
After our interview, he offered to show me why a clean river matters to him. The drive between his house and the landing was a revelation. Brewer narrated the entire round-trip: which restaurant used to serve the best “dirty hot dogs”; which church his brother-in-law preaches at; where the post office, wrecker service, and tobacco warehouse used to be; which house belongs to a Lumbee heart surgeon; in which neighborhoods the mill workers, and the drug dealers, once lived; in which field a particular farmer shot and skinned his cows; which creek suffered E. coli contamination; where to go for farm equipment or funerals. Past and present elided as Brewer offered 62 years’ worth of knowledge. He waved at a passing vehicle. “That’s my sister,” he said.
We launched the boat in downtown Lumberton, just behind a tire store. The Lumber is a blackwater river, so-named for the tannins that naturally leach from vegetation. We followed its snaky path, Brewer pointing out the waterways and ponds that connected at all angles. Spanish moss hung from the cypresses that lined the banks. Turtles popped underwater at our approach. Every few minutes I saw a commotion in the near distance: a great blue heron, with its six-foot wingspan, taking off in flight.
“Tell me this ain’t beautiful,” Brewer said. “I could anchor down and take a nap.”
He cut the motor and pulled out a fishing rod. He cast the line and we stopped chatting. I thought about our earlier interview, when Brewer talked about the effects of industrialization here. “I had friends that were what we call natural healers,” he said. “They could take natural herbs and plants and spices from our land, and mix concoctions that would cure whatever the problem was. And now that environment is going away, because we’re spraying the grounds with all kinds of chemicals.”
“We are a fast-food environment,” he had said. “We don’t think about the repercussions of our safety, our future, how we’re affecting others. And some may look at Indigenous as being a spiritual realm of a cultural type society, but that’s not what it is. It’s about survival.”
I was lost in my own thoughts when he handed me the rod. “Reel it in,” he said. On the other end was a bream, yellow and black, edible but too small for a meal. Brewer unhooked the fish and returned it to the river.
Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham. He has covered North Carolina for more than three decades. Find more of his work here.