Project #1: COVID-19 Hazardous and Medical Waste Oversight and Regulation Hearings
As a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the amount of medical waste (i.e. contaminated protective equipment like masks and gloves) flowing out of hospitals, nursing homes, testing labs, and other medical facilities has exponentially increased. This waste is often dumped or incinerated within close proximity of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other People of Color communities. The adverse health effects of this practice are two-fold since it negatively impacts human beings and the environment as a whole. Much of the personal protective equipment and disposable medical equipment is plastic. Most plastics are manufactured from fossil fuels. The resulting carbon dioxide and methane emissions leads to climate disruption. Disposal of wastes in landfills and by incineration also results in toxic and hazardous air emissions. These emissions pollute the air which people breathe and the water which people drink. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) does not directly address any medical waste concerns, so WERA, in partnership with several other environmentally conscious organizations, is trying to rectify this glaring omission by seeking to organize EPA, congressional, and local public hearings on this matter. An overview of this project can be downloaded below.
Project #2: Recommendations to the Biden-Harris Administration
WERA, in partnership with other organizations, has been asked by the Biden-Harris administration transition team to compile a list of environmental justice recommendations which will be examined by the EPA and the Council for Environmental Quality. WERA and its partners have created four main recommendations. An overview of this project can be downloaded below.
- US Congressional COVID-19 Hazardous and Medical Waste Public Hearing and Oversight Regulations: This recommendation has already been described above.
- Incorporate and fund WERA’s Community Owned and Managed Research (COMR) model as a tool to support grassroots corrective actions: COMR’s four basic principles are: a) funding equity, b) management parity, c) science for compliance, d) leverage research data and results for civil rights and environmental laws and statutes compliance and enforcement of violations by government and industry. COMR was vetted and recognized by the National Institution of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The COMR model will help address exploitive COVID-19 research of impacted communities that is funded by billions in federal and state tax dollars. The EPA and university endorsed “community-based participatory research” (CBPR) model falls short of compliance and enforcement priorities.
- Ensure installation of safe drinking water and sewer service for Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other People of Color communities: Safe drinking water is necessary to protect against COVID-19 and other environmental injustice legacy diseases related to pollution and contamination.
- Ensure that recipients of taxpayers’ money are held accountable: This recommendation includes following the money from application, to funding, to completion, and, finally, to community evaluations. This recommendation applies to local/state/federal governments, hired contractors, academic/university institutions, and commerce/industry recipients.
Project #3: Green New Deal for Public Education Act on behalf of the Office for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders
WERA was asked by the Office for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders to provide input and share comments regarding the draft of Green New Deal for Public Education Act. This bill would aid in insuring that certain environmental disparities in education are wiped out. These disparities can come in the form of poor ventilation, windowless classrooms, the presence of toxic compounds (i.e. asbestos) in school buildings, and lead in school drinking water. These issues have been scientifically proven to negatively impact the health of young students and to impede their academic achievements for life. The betterment of the American public school system is an issue that is close to the hearts of Omega and Brenda Wilson. Brenda is a retired special education teacher, Omega has taught at the university level, and they both believe that our young students hold the keys to our futures. An overview of this project can be downloaded below.
Project #4: Protecting the White Level Community:
White Level is a predominantly Black community with a historic Indigenous population that has existed in tandem with the city of Mebane for generations. Ever since the Mill Creek Golf & Country Club was annexed into the city, it has received basic infrastructure including paved streets, water, sewer, and the right to vote while White Level has been red-lined out. Mill Creek is a gated community that houses some of the state’s wealthiest residents. Mill Creek is rapidly expanding and its developers are looking to buy as much land as possible. Now, a predominantly white and wealthy country club community lives directly across the street from a low-income historic Black and Indigenous community. As a result, several alarming economic disparities have arose. Unpaved roads exist within several feet of paved roads, broadband internet access is only available to Mill Creek residents, and sidewalks only exist on the Mill Creek side of the street. To remedy these disparities, WERA is devoted to seeking access financial, technical, legal, and research support for White Level homeowners. WERA’s board and collaborative partners are residents of the White Level Community.
Project #5: Environmental Justice (EJ) Mapping:
EJ Mapping is a constantly evolving project that WERA has been involved in since its creation in 1994. Long before the EPA, the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), or even the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) had even considered mapping People of Color communities, Omega Wilson produced a series of maps which showed Mebane, its surrounding communities, and some of the environmental hazards that posed health risks to the area. These maps are essential to the people living in these communities because EJ maps more accurately inform them of their geographic proximity to harmful facilities. These maps also aid researchers when they are seeking to understand the extent to which local environmental hazards impact communities. Additionally, these maps are even used to identify legacy polluting sites that are in close proximity to planned development areas. Corporations are always planning new sites, so the use of EJ mapping is encouraged by the federal government in order to help reduce disproportionate impacts in planning and zoning in and around People of Color communities. Therefore, Omega Wilson and other WERA partners are constantly trying to insure that Mebane and its surrounding areas have up-to-date EJ maps. As a result of the original maps, Omega Wilson was asked to be a part of a U.S. EPA working group that designed EJSCREEN, a national EJ mapping tool. Currently, WERA is working directly with the city of Mebane to incorporate EJSCREEN into their own mapping tools. The original EJ maps are shown at the bottom of this website’s homepage. Check out the EJSCREEN tool at this link: https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen.
Project #6: Providing Input for Environmental Justice (EJ) Bills and Executive Orders at the State and Federal Level
WERA has been fortunate enough to be asked to provide input for EJ bills and executive orders at both the state and federal level. A marker bill is a piece of legislation that is not designed to pass but rather it is supposed to build awareness and support to particular issues. Such a bill has already been presented on the floor of the NC General Assembly by Representative Pricey Harrison. House Bill DRH10390-MH-144, which features WERA’s input, seeks “to provide enhanced public participation opportunities for permitting decisions impacting overburdened communities.” Omega Wilson is also currently working on a federal EJ Bill in partnership with WE ACT, an EJ non-profit based out of Harlem, New York. During this long process of collaboration, Omega Wilson is insuring that the voices of rural communities affected by environmental disparities are heard at the same level as the voices of urban communities affected by environmental disparities. WERA also provided basic amenities and infrastructure input to U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s Environmental Justice Bill. Currently, WERA is still providing input in re-drafting an EJ executive order for North Carolina governor Roy Cooper’s administration. The EJ marker bill for the NC General Assembly can be downloaded below.
Project #7: Partnership with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)
An integral part of the National Wildlife Federation is their Office of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization (EJCCR). In the spring of 2021, Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of the EJCCR office, reached out to WERA, and, as a result, a partnership between the two organizations was born. Omega Wilson and Dr. Ali have previously worked together with the U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in Washington D.C. With the same shared set of values, the two organizations are striving to “prioritize, amplify, and include the policy solutions, views, and voices of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and lower wealth communities that have been impacted the most by discriminatory practices.” The two organizations are also seeking to educate the public about the difficult legacy of our National Parks since Black and Indigenous Americans were restricted from visiting the parks until the 1960’s. In May 2021, Omega Wilson of WERA was invited to speak at a COVID-19 Environmental Justice Roundtable that was sponsored by the NWF. During the roundtable, Omega Wilson, as well as many other EJ community activists from all across the country, spoke about the pressing problems facing their communities and overall environments. An overview of the roundtable can be found below.
Project #8: Partnership with the American Bar Association (ABA)
In the spring of 2021, the ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice took notice of WERA and its twenty-seven year long history of community activism and community lawyering. They have taken particular notice of WERA’s commitment to insuring that COVID-19 medical waste is properly and justly disposed, as outlined above in Project #1. During a Zoom conference, all of the pertinent COVID-19 waste disposal information was passed on to the Environmental Justice Working Group, which is sponsored by the ABA. The importance of this partnership is paramount given the fact that community lawyers are often the second line of defense when it comes to protecting People of Color communities from environmental injustices. Oftentimes, once community activist organizations like WERA recognize and report said injustices, community lawyers are then responsible for pursuing justice through the legal system. As a result, a relationship with the foremost organization of lawyers in the country is essential to WERA’s mission and vision. Check out the ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice here: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/.
Project #9: Partnership with the Alamance County Community Remembrance Coalition (ACCRC)
As outlined on the “Our History” page, Alamance County has a difficult history which includes racial strife and violence. There are three known lynchings in the history of Alamance County: Wyatt Outlaw (1870), William Puryear (1870), and John Jeffress (1920). To bring awareness to these atrocities, the ACCRC was formed in 2020. This organization is made up of a diverse team of Alamance County residents who wish to better inform other residents of the true history of the county in which they live. This organization is also a county-wide branch of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The EJI was founded in 1989 by attorney Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama. The purpose of the EJI is to end mass incarceration and to educate the public about the history of lynchings after the Civil War. Currently, the ACCRC is trying to memorialize the three men by collecting soil from the lynching sites and seeking the approval for historical markers. Check out the main website for Bryan Stevenson’s EJI: https://eji.org/.
Project #10: The On-Going Pursuit of Clean Energy and Climate Justice
Alamance County is home to one of the largest retail industrial centers and distribution parks in the country. A focus on a just transition with green climate practices and trans-local climate resilience with an emphasis on basic amenities and infrastructure (safe drinking water, sewer lines, affordable housing, streets and sidewalks, clean recreational waterways, toxic free soil, storm water management) is paramount to WERA’s mission of clean energy and climate justice. Efforts include increasing community input in new civil rights laws, environmental justice executive orders, and other legislation at the local, state and federal levels. All these efforts will encourage the implementation of direct stimulus funding to local communities and deepen our alliances to climate justice organizations like the NC Climate Justice Collective and Leadership Forum. Like WERA, these organizations stand with disproportionately impacted People of Color communities and other low-income communities.
Project #11: Partnership with the Z. Smith Reynolds (ZSR) Foundation
In 1997, WERA received its first major funding from the ZSR Foundation of Winston-Salem, NC. Today, ZSR still provides funding and support. In the summer of 2021, something different happened. The ZSR Foundation’s Non-Profit Internship Program agreed to partially fund a college-age intern at WERA. This intern is the writer and creator of this website. His name is Lucas Thornton. Lucas was tasked with creating a WERA digital archive that is both easily accessible and understandable. He was also tasked with digitizing and compiling many of the documents, publications, and photographs that are associated with WERA’s nearly three decades of work. Lucas is a life-long resident of Duplin County, NC. At the time of his internship, he was a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, he is planning on going to attend law school where he hopes to become an attorney who will assist People of Color Communities in their fight against environmental injustices and institutional racism.