Fertilizer Plant Fires Serves as Catalyst for Wake Forest Institute Jul 21, 2023News

On June 27, 2023, BREDL Community Organizer Jason Torian, and Piney Grove League for Change member, Sabrina Webster attended day two of The Wake Forest University Environmental and Epistemic Justice Institute.  During the week of June 26-30, the Institute welcomed early to mid-career journalists from across the country as the inaugural class of Wake Forest Mellon Environmental Justice Journalism Fellows. 

Wake Forest Humanities professor and interim Divinity School Dean, Dr. Corey Walker, oversees the project.  Walker invited Torian and Webster to speak to Institute fellows about their work following the 2022 Weaver Fertilizer plant fire in Winston-Salem. Since the fire, Piney Grove League for Change has urged the City of Winston-Salem and the State of North Carolina to make changes on multiple fronts.  The group would like to see additional testing of soil and water in the neighborhoods surrounding the former site of the plant.  They would also like to see the city or state maintain a publicly available list of high-risk facilities, so that neighbors are aware of the potential for catastrophic events.  Webster and Torian have also urged state legislators to increase insurance requirements for buildings housing hazardous materials, and to increase fines for facilities that have been found to have violated legal statutes and OSHA standards.

During day two of the institute, the journalists participated in workshops and heard from Winston-Salem activists and organizers. Torian and Webster, along with other community activists, addressed the journalists during a lunch session led by Dr. Walker. Walker shared his aspirations for the program, and explained how it connects to the mission of the university.

“This Institute marks the beginning of a critical journey of radical hope in the wake of a deep and complex history. It is part of a multi-prong effort that seeks to bring together the best of our thinking and catalyze new knowledge capable of contributing to the realization of a new way of life and a new mode of being human in the world.” Dr. Walker continued, “In all, this is an audacious effort to embody the very essence and spirit of Wake Forest University’s motto Pro Humanitate.”

Webster described her experience following the fire, including how she had to clean her entire house because of the ash left behind on her furniture and other items.  “Even though it’s been over a year I still experience a lump in my throat, pain, and tears reliving that devastating nightmare,” said Webster.  “I still don’t feel completely safe.”  Webster continued, “My neighbors and I on Tobacco Street would like to plant gardens and know that what we’re planting is safe to eat. We are very concerned about dying fruit trees, and overgrowth of other trees and weeds.  We need a reliable resource that can provide assistance with these concerns. At times, no one seems to care, especially the city officials. Who will be responsible for protecting our neighborhoods from industry’s greed and the blindness of government officials? Who will preserve and protect Mother Nature?”

Following lunch Webster and Torian led the group on a tour of the Piney Grove neighborhood and a visit to the site of the fire.  The journalists asked several questions, including, “Which came first, the plant or the neighborhood?”  “The community was established a few years before the plant was built,” said Webster.  “In fact, this neighborhood was originally not even in the city; it was annexed.” Webster and Torian also discussed the dangerous hazards within the building, which included holes in the ceiling, faulty wiring, inadequate storage for ammonium nitrate, and no sprinkler systems.

Webster said that she hopes the institute will inspire the journalists to bring more attention to the situation in Winston-Salem.  “Even though it’s a painful subject to discuss, I felt excited and somewhat relieved that I had the opportunity to share my experiences with environmental journalists and activists, listening to a real-life story, and hopefully they will be inspired to dive deeper into this story.

For more information on the institute, visit  https://environmentaljustice.wfu.edu/institute/