The People United: How Rural North Carolina Organized to Block a Hazardous Waste Facility

The Fight of Their Lives

Directed by Michael Arnold (2021)

Film Review

This documentary is the remarkable account of North Carolina activists who successfully blocked the construction of a hazardous waste facility in 1990. In the late eighties, the governor and the state Hazardous Waste Management Commission cooked up a scheme for a private corporation called THERMAchem to incinerate hazardous waste from Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky in one of North Carolina’s most pristine rural counties.

Residents from four counties targeted as potential incinerator sites were especially angry after learning state officials had covered up dangerous air and water contamination at an existing hazardous waste incinerator.

Granville County activists had the most ingenious method to prevent the state from choosing their county. One of their lawyers bought the land proposed for the new site, broke it up into $5 sections and sold it to 9,000 people from 39 states. Condemning the property of 9,000 people (to build the incinerator) was such an onerous proposition, the Hazardous Waste Commission had no choice but to look elsewhere.

The site ultimately selected was on state agricultural land in Butner in Granville County. Residents from four counties joined forces to block construction of the proposed facility, owing to the incinerator’s proximity to a 2,500 bed hospital for the intellectually handicapped.

Following a year of nonstop protest marches, lawsuits and civil disobedience, on December 13, 1990, the Council of State vetoed a proposal to transfer the land title from the agricultural division to the Hazardous Waste Management Commission. In 1993, THERMAchem left North Carolina to look elsewhere

Most of the film is derived from amateur footage, and TV coverage of the protests (which was surprisingly thorough compared to protest coverage in the northern US).