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South Carolina Reverend: Faith Leaders Must Be on Frontlines of Fight for Environmental Justice

Web ExclusiveNovember 08, 2019
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The first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice is being held at South Carolina State University Friday night in Orangeburg. Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman will co-moderate the event with former Environmental Protection Agency official Mustafa Ali. Leaders from frontline communities will attend tonight's forum, including Reverend Leo Woodberry, who has been fighting against environmental racism in South Carolina for years. We speak to him about environmental injustices in the state and where the candidates stand on the issues. Rev. Woodberry is a pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina, and the environmental justice chair of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign. He is also the executive director of the nonprofit New Alpha Community Development Corporation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re here at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, where tonight, on this very stage of the MLK Auditorium, will be the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. All Democratic and Republican candidates were invited. Those that are coming, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney and Joe Sestak. The forum will be hosted by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and leaders from frontline communities.

South Carolina is a state where African-American communities and people of color on the frontlines have been fighting for justice in the face of extreme environmental racism for years. South Carolina has repeatedly been pummeled by climate change-fueled hurricanes, including Florence, which swept through the South in 2018, causing epic floods. Its black residents have faced disproportionate air and water pollution, exposure to environmental hazards.

But South Carolina is also home to some of the most inspiring community responses to environmental racism. We’re joined now by one of the leaders of the fight for environmental justice here in South Carolina: Reverend Leo Woodberry, pastor of the Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina, environmental justice chair of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, also executive director of the nonprofit New Alpha Community Development Corporation.

Reverend Woodberry, we welcome you to Democracy Now!

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Thank you so much, Amy, for this opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain for us what environmental justice means and what environmental racism means to you?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Sure, absolutely. When we first began to deal with this issue, it was basically around where polluting facilities were being sited and permitted. And they were primarily in people of color, low-income communities. And the term that was used initially was “environmental racism.” And that continued, and the term “environmental justice” actually began in Warren County, North Carolina, where a group of citizens were fighting against the dumping of PCB-contaminated material in their community.

So, in 1991, there was a convening, the first convening of people of color. And during that time, over 300 people of color from across the country came together, representing different organizations. And we decided that the term “environmental racism” does describe where we were, but not where we wanted to go. And that’s when people decided we would use that term. And it just grew across the South, across the nation. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which described environmental justice communities as those that were people of color, low-income communities, communities environmentally overburdened, environmentally vulnerable communities, as well as tribes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you face in Florence.

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: OK. Well, Florence, we face some of the same issues that the state does. And, you know, South Carolina is an example of what’s happening across the entire South. The South is a region that has more polluters than any other region in the country. It is the least funded in terms of philanthropic support.

And in the South, we are currently experiencing every climate impact that there is. So, we have torrential rains. We have flooding. We have sea level rise. We have hurricanes. We have tornadoes. We have heat waves. We have snow. We have pretty much everything except for glacier melt. And so, in South Carolina, we have been buffeted for the last five years. So, in 2015, we had what then-Governor Nikki Haley described as the thousand-year flood; 2016, we had Hurricane Matthew; 2017, we had additional flooding connected with Hurricane Irma, and that was 2017; 2018, we had Hurricane Florence; and then we had impacts this year, though we really dodged a bullet with Hurricane Dorian.

And so, we’re talking about a state where we have contamination. We have pollution. We have, in Marion County, almost 300 homes where poor people have been told they must elevate their homes or not be eligible for insurance and some — and certain FEMA support. We have bridges that have to be repaired, roads that have to be repaired. We have an untold number of homes that have been flooded and not properly remediated for mold, which is a potential crisis as people breathe in those spores and will start to have and are having respiratory problems.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the role of faith leaders. I mean, you’re not a scientist. You are the Reverend Leo Woodberry. How did you get involved with this issue?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: OK. I actually got involved in this issue while pastoring, and we were working with some other churches — Greater Singletary AME Church, St. Stephens Baptist Church. I was pastoring St. Matthew Baptist Church in Marion County, predominantly African-American, persistent history of poverty. And we had a mentoring program for teens. In fact, we were actually partnering at that time with a mentoring program here in South Carolina State University called Serious Teens Acting Responsibly.

And we went through the usual mentoring, training, and we got to the health part. And so, we started off with avoiding teen pregnancy and drug use and alcoholism. And then someone from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control handed me a book, a fish advisory, which told people what fish they should or should not eat because of mercury contamination. So I wanted to know where this mercury came from. And I found out about coal-fired plants. And so, that began my journey, in 1990, of becoming involved with environmental issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you make of President Trump saying he’s going to save coal, come hell or high water?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, the fact of the matter is that we have the majority of the world’s climatologists — not other scientists who may be veterinarians or whatever. We have our own federal agencies — the National Climate Assessment report, which was released, that says that we have to move away from fossil fuels. The United Nations, the COPs, the Paris Agreement — everyone on the planet, 193 countries, are saying we have to move away from fossil fuel.

So, the administration’s fascination with continuing to make profits off of a fuel source which is no longer good for the planet or its people or flora or fauna, it’s time has just come to an end. And just saying that we need to think about what it will do to the economy and to the stock market is akin to saying that we should never have moved towards automobiles and build highways because we didn’t want the buggy whip industry and the carriage industry to go out of business. And so, it’s a fallacy. It runs counter to everything that the world is advocating for and the direction we’re heading.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Woodberry, you were at the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland.


AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think these summits are so important? And will you be going to — well, it was going to be — well, I was going to say it was going to be in Chile. Originally —


AMY GOODMAN: — the U.N. summit this year was going to be in Brazil, but the far-right president was elected, Jair Bolsonaro. It’s one of the first things he did, to cancel the COP, the 25th COP, even though, you know, you have the Amazon, the lungs of the planet. So then Chile was going to host the COP, and they’ve just canceled it because of the massive protests in the street there. And so, Madrid in Spain has picked it up. Will you be heading there?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Yes, yes, we will be in Madrid. And we’ll be dealing with what we call the problems that impact the Global South. So, we’ll be going there along with US Climate Action Network, which is a part of Climate Action Network International, and going there also — I serve on the board of directors for Green Faith, which is a national and international faith-based organization. And so, we’ll be going there and doing some training and some side events and talking about our forests. The Southeast is the world’s largest producer of wood products and is being —

AMY GOODMAN: Southeast of the United States.

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Southeastern United States, yeah. And it’s connected to the wood pellet industry. There is none here, but the wood pellet industry in Europe and in Asia. And so our forests are being decimated at a time where we’re told that we need to maintain our forests and plant 1 trillion trees.

AMY GOODMAN: Florence is in the northeast of South Carolina —


AMY GOODMAN: — near North Carolina. How are you affected by the hog farms and the kind of — what’s going on there? And explain what’s happening, particularly to communities of color.

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Absolutely. Well, the South Carolina Environmental Justice Network, we partner with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. And I often tell people that no matter where these polluting facilities are sited, the air blows, the wind blows, and waters flow. And so, a good example of what happened to Florida during Hurricane Florence is that the hog waste, the debris, all of that, actually went into the Pee Dee River, which flows from North Carolina to South Carolina. And so, that meant pollution, that meant debris, that actually got to the point where the city, which wasn’t impacted in a large way, we actually could not drink our water, and all the water pipes and the faucets were clogged up by the debris.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, explain — for people who don’t understand the enormity of these hog farms and the waste that they produce, explain what people are facing. What is this industrial farming that’s going on?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: The industrial farming that’s going on, what they do is they take the hog waste, and they put them in giant lagoons. And some —

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. How many hogs are held on a —

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Oh, I can’t tell you the exact number at this time, but we’re talking about millions. And then they also take hog waste, and they spray it over fields. And, of course, the wind catches it up, and it spreads around, and people are actually breathing this. In a lot of rural areas, we have low-income communities that are still using wells, etc. And so, it’s just a horrible case. And North Carolina has the hog farms. They have chicken farms, you know. And all of this waste is just put out into the environmental justice community.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that, how close they are to communities of color. And do you think that they would be able to build these farms near white communities or more affluent communities?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, we know that polluters actually site lower-income communities. Most of them are people of color; some are white communities. And because these communities are poor, because they do not have what we call engines of economic development, they go in, and they promise jobs. And so, a few jobs, people desperately grasp on to them, and they use that, that hoax, that lie, to move into people of color communities, and then also promising the county and local elected officials that the revenue that will be generated through taxes will be beneficial.

And so, in more affluent white communities, people are aware of the dangers of pollution and the proximity. They don’t want to be fenceline communities. They don’t want to be frontline communities. And so, in a lot of instances, the lack of education in poor and people of color communities allows them to come in and to pollute, so that, as my good friend and colleague Mustafa Ali said, we, in our communities, suffer disproportionately all of these negative health impacts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could ask the candidates a question tonight — I mean, tonight, here on this very stage, the MLK Auditorium here at South Carolina State, we will be holding the first Environmental Justice Presidential Forum. The candidates who have agreed to come are Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, the two senators, the businessman Tom Steyer, Joe Sestak and John Delaney and Marianne Williamson. Choose a candidate, and tell us a question you have for them.

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, one question that I have is that if they are elected president — if any of these candidates are elected president, what policies are we going to put in place, similar to the Green New Deal or whatever, which will allow communities to mitigate the pollution that is impacting our community and our health? Also, how we can make our communities more resilient and adaptable, and doing that in a just and equitable way, as we make the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean, renewable-based economy, realizing that we’re talking about community-led solutions, because there can be no general template, a one size that fits all?

And we, at the South Carolina Environmental Justice Network, New Alpha Community Development Corporation, are absolutely 100% serious about this. And so, all of the candidates that we have been in touch with, we have insisted that they do tours of communities that have been impacted by pollution, environmental justice communities, that they visit the communities that are struggling to recover from climate change impacts. And I’ll have to say that Tom Steyer’s son has done a tour in the Pee Dee. We know that Tom —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the Pee Dee is.

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: The Pee Dee is the northeastern region of South Carolina that is made up of six counties, with a large African-American and people of color population. In fact, in two of those counties, the population is over 60%, with two other counties low 30s and the rest in the 42 to 47% range.

AMY GOODMAN: What question do you have for Elizabeth Warren?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: For her, well, she did a tour in the Rosemont part of Charleston, South Carolina, so she toured a EJ community. But similar, you know, when legislation is passed, how do we ensure that the usual suspects — the corporations, the utilities, the lobbyists who are already on Capitol Hill — how do we ensure that the usual suspects, once policy has been made into law, don’t belly up to Congress to suck up whatever money is budgeted, and that we make sure that resources get down to the grassroots?

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Cory Booker is a proud supporter of nuclear power. Can you talk about the history of nuclear power in South Carolina? Can you talk about Aiken? Can you talk about how you feel about this and what question you’d have for him?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, we have nuclear power in South Carolina. We have some facilities. We have the Savannah River site, which is right next to South Carolina, impacts us. We actually had a situation in South Carolina, the V.C. Summer, where — in Jenkinsville, South Carolina, Fairfax County, where SCANA wanted to build two nuclear reactors.

AMY GOODMAN: SCANA is South Carolina…

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: South Carolina — it was South Carolina’s only Fortune 500 company that produced electricity and gas. And they wanted to build two nuclear reactors. And they raised the rates on their customers over and over and over again. It was — the project was $9 billion. They lost $9 billion.

And we were part of the formation of a coalition called the Stop the Blank Check Coalition, because one of the laws that we have here, the Base Load Review Act, literally allowed them to just have a blank check and raise rates on their own customers. And so, the Stop the Blank Check Coalition, which was a coalition that folks usually don’t see — environmental justice groups, conservation groups, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, AARP — we all came together. And SCANA made a settlement with the Public Service Commission that they would no longer raise rates on their customers to fund V.C. Summer project.

So, because I’m a person of faith, I believe there was some divine intervention, and General Electric, which was to build — part of their company that builds these reactors, went bankrupt. And so, SCANA looked around for some other company to finish the construction, and they were told they needed somewhere near $3 billion more. So, they couldn’t get any more out of their customers. They approached their shareholders, who refused to fund it. So the entire project was abandoned.

And Dominion Energy actually had to buy SCANA so that the company didn’t go under completely, which opens up something brand new now, because, of course, Dominion Energy is the company behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. And so, they just announced that the pipeline will extend into South Carolina, which opens up a whole new issue that we have to contend with, because of the — what I consider the victory that we won with the V.C. Summer project.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean for you to have this first Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice in your state, in the Palmetto State, here in Orangeburg tonight?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, it’s definitely historical. And I’m so happy about it, because, you know, looking back at a movement that started in a small rural county and came up with the term “environmental justice,” and us being able to work decade after decade so that the term “environmental justice” is known all across this country, you know, that we have advisory committees, that corporations have, that state agencies have, that the United Nations even uses that term. And so, to have presidential candidates finally acknowledge that this is a key issue, not only in our country, but globally, says a lot about a lot of folks, like Connie Tucker, Damu Smith, Dana Alston, and a lot of people who are working very hard today to address these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we’re talking in the week that President Trump has announced he’s finalizing pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, that was formulated at the COP, the U.N. climate summit in Paris in 2015. He wanted to do it a few years ago, but because of the way the treaty works or the agreement works, it’s triggered now and apparently will be finalized on the day after Election Day. What does that mean to you, this global summit, the U.S. only one pulling out of it? What does it mean for you, concretely, here on the ground in South Carolina?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: What it means to me — and I go, once again, back to the term “community-led solutions,” climate solutions — is that we may not, at this present time, have the support that’s needed to do things in this country on a macro level. But because we see communities and cities that are passing resolutions to go 100% renewable, because we see students across this country who are going to the streets demanding change, because we see that states, like New York state, California, are taking action to make a difference, and we have churches, and we have community-based organizations, that are talking about energy efficiency and how we can ramp up renewables in our towns and our homes, etc., that we’re not going to stop. And if it takes us doing it, you know, as President Obama said, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand, we’re going to make change, because change comes from people. And the people will rise up. The people will speak up. And eventually, we will have the reins of democracy fully in our hands again to guide this nation to a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.

AMY GOODMAN: One other question. Nikki Haley, she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when you were in Poland at the U.N. climate summit. She was the governor here of South Carolina before she became U.N. ambassador. She quit that, said she wouldn’t run against President Trump, but unclear what her future aspirations are. What is your assessment of her environmental record and her record overall?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, you know, we have — we talk about a thing called a triple threat, similar to the triple threat that Martin Luther King Jr. talked about when he identified it as racism, poverty and militarism. We say the triple threat that faces our country today, and in the South particularly, are false greenwashing solutions, like biomass wood pellets, fracked gas and pipelines, and then, to answer your question, people who are climate deniers and climate delayers. And until we have people who are in power, were in power, have their hands on the levers of power, realize that the existence of this planet, society and civilization as we know it, hangs in the balance.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does she fit into that spectrum?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: And what she needs to do is she needs to speak the truth that she knows.

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t think she’s done that so far?

REV. LEO WOODBERRY: Well, she’s been at the United Nations. She knows that the majority of people around the world and the majority of governments around the world say that we have to move forward, that climate change is real. We don’t need to debate any longer whether it’s man-made or whether you have some notion that it’s natural evolution, you know. The fact of the matter is that we have to do something, and we have to do it now. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for taking this time, Reverend Leo Woodberry, pastor of the Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina, executive director of the nonprofit New Alpha Community Development Corporation, also on the advisory council of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Tune into our programming tonight as we co-moderate — I’ll be co-moderating, with Mustafa Santiago Ali, former EPA official, now with the National Wildlife Fund, the first Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice here in Orangeburg, South Carolina, at South Carolina State University. Thanks so much for joining us.

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