The Winston Weaver fertilizer fire and the impact of industry in residential areas

The Winston Weaver fertilizer fire and the impact of industry in residential areas

4:28pm Feb 02, 2022
The fire at the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant led to roughly 6,500 people being asked to evacuate. Screenshot of drone footage courtesy of City of Winston-Salem.

The conditions at the Winston-Salem fertilizer plant remain much the same with the fire still burning there, and residents within a one-mile radius of the blaze — roughly 6,500 people — still being asked by officials to stay away from the evacuation zone.

Many of those affected in the surrounding area are people of color. Russell Smith is a professor of geography at Winston-Salem State University who leads the Spatial Justice Studio. He spoke with WFDD’s David Ford.

Interview Highlights

On the history of spatial injustice:

What you're getting at is kind of these often seen as locally undesirable land uses in which there are things that the community maybe needs or provides jobs. People think about them in terms of, you know, heavy industrial, landfills, factories that emit pollution, and often they're economic engines for communities — but they also have negative environmental side effects to them.

And the question always comes, ‘Where do these things go?’ Due to the power structure, politics, economics, they're often not put in the privileged communities, in predominantly white spaces and wealthy spaces. So, then they're pushed to the other side of the tracks, the other side of the road. They're lumped together in areas where there's already something that's seen as less desirable, and it's like, ‘Well, if we add more to that area, we're not, you know, making it bad in other places, we're just kind of conglomerating these uses all in one space.’

On health and environmental impacts of industry in close proximity to residential areas:

I think that the immediate concern in this case is the environmental consequences of what's happening to the air, potential for air pollution. And then, of course, if this stuff is heavy enough and falls to the ground, can get into the soil can get into the water. Those are just some of the long-term things when we think about environmental damage caused by a situation like this. And I think all too often we have placed as a society, economic considerations at the top of the pyramid and below them are its impacts on the community and its impacts on the environment.

And so people have often turned a blind eye to the idea that, ‘Okay, well, it's generating tax revenue, it’s generating jobs, and we'll just deal with the environmental consequences.’ And that has been true, historically.

Spatial justice and this idea of creating more sustainable spaces in our communities is that we need to value all these things more equitably. We need to have environment and community and economic considerations all at once, and determine whether or not these uses are in line with what the values of the community are — and who then is impacted when they're not. And often the communities that are impacted are the communities that have less of a voice, that often are already suffering from other injustices besides just the spatial injustice of the sighting of a noxious use in their neighborhood.

On preventing situations like this one in the future:

What are we doing to be more proactive? If we understand that this building was grandfathered in and didn't have to follow the rules and regulations, are we being proactive and thinking about what other spaces that we need to be concerned with, now that we've had this canary in the coal mine, that this national story has been raised? You know, a couple years back in Texas there was a big explosion, similar kind of story. And maybe at that time, we needed to start thinking and looking in our own communities and saying, ‘Wait a second – we know we have these older buildings that have this type of product. And there's potential for these harms. And injustices in neighborhoods in our community are just as great. What can we do to fix that now?’

And I think those are the questions people need to ask when efforts like this occur, when tragedy like this occur in communities that displace thousands of people from their homes for multiple days. Can we be more proactive in thinking about how these sites can be examined, explored, and then hopefully, ameliorated prior to another event like this occurring?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

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