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A Black Woman Fought for Her Community, and Her Life, Amidst Polluting Landfills and Vast ‘Borrow Pits’ Mined for Sand and Clay

LaFanette Soles-Woods’ home outside Pensacola, Florida, has been called one of America’s most environmentally unjust communities. It has more cancer cases than anyone can keep track of.

PENSACOLA, Fla.—Late last summer, LaFanette Soles-Woods carefully made her way to the podium to address the Escambia County commissioners. Normally, she rode a mobility scooter because she so easily lost her breath. But she thought this occasion was vital enough to make an exception.

“I am asking you to table the renewal of these pits,” she said, “until we can get to the bottom of all of these problems that we have.”

For years she’d been a leader of the fight to clean up her home of Wedgewood, a small historically Black community a few miles away from the meeting in downtown Pensacola. The pits she spoke of were giant holes in the earth—”borrow pits”—from which companies extracted clay and sand and then turned profitable again by making them landfills and accepting all sorts of waste and debris, some of it toxic.

Soles-Woods, a 17-year Air Force veteran, had come to speak for others in the community whom she tracked in the Pensacola News Journal—on the obituary page. The contaminated groundwater, tainted soil and poisoned air from the borrow pits and the landfills and all the diesel trucks servicing them seemed to have taken a terrible toll.

“There’s not really a week that goes by that you don’t hear about somebody in the neighborhood that has died,” Soles-Woods, 63, said in an interview.

A photo of LaFanette Soles-Woods posted on Facebook.
A photo of LaFanette Soles-Woods posted on Facebook.

An accident of geography had helped turn Wedgewood—an aspirational destination for working- and middle-class Blacks sitting atop all this valuable clay and sand—into one of the most environmentally unjust places in the country.

Beverly Wright, the founder and executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, reached that conclusion after working with the Wedgewood community for a decade “to stop the continuation of the borrow pit-landfill cycle.”

Today, Wedgewood is home to seven solid waste facilities and four borrow pits, some of which fill with groundwater and appear deceptively as beautiful, natural aquamarine lakes. There’s also a rock crushing plant, a tree recycling facility and a UPS depot, all of which line Wedgwood’s streets with a near-constant parade of heavy vehicles.

Since none of the landfills are lined, toxins seep into groundwater. High levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, were discovered by county officials five years ago in runoff from the most notorious landfill, Rolling Hills, which is one of the reasons why most people in the community still prefer bottled water despite assurances that their tap water is safe to drink.

Now shuttered, the one-time borrow pit became the centerpiece of community grievances, rising to a 141-foot-tall mountain of waste and debris that spontaneously ignited on more than one occasion. It was eventually shut down by county officials after emitting dangerously high levels of noxious hydrogen sulfide from moldering drywall ripped out of flooded homes.

The powerful stench of rotten eggs wasn’t the only problem. Wedgwood’s older neighborhoods of Olive Heights and Rolling Hills lie just beyond the county’s sewer system, meaning residents there rely on septic tanks that can back up during heavy rains and cause waste to overflow into their yards, streets and even from showerheads.

Escambia County, on the Gulf of Mexico, already has one of the highest levels of rainfall in the country, which climate change threatens to make worse, along with the intensity of hurricanes. Those storms, in turn, mean more debris for Wedgwood’s landfills, which means greater emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is shorter-lived but far more potent than carbon dioxide.

Throughout this community of neat, single-family homes, there are people on every block suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, sleep apnea and all sorts of “weird” cancers previously unheard of in their families.

The cancer rate in Escambia County per 100,000 population is higher than the Florida and national averages, and the county’s heart disease death rate is considerably higher than that of the state’s.

Waste in Wedgewood

Proving a causal link between these assorted maladies and the contaminated groundwater, tainted soil or polluted air in Wedgewood is exceedingly difficult, as it is everywhere. How these environmental issues add up or amplify one another, especially when it concerns the health outcome of any particular individual, will also never be known. But most everyone in the neighborhood has their suspicions. Most also question what their community would look like today were it populated by more affluent white people.

Rising to face her local representatives last August, Soles-Woods spoke in a gentle voice with a hoarseness which makes her sound like she has a permanent cold. She suffered from a long list of illnesses—high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease, sleep apnea and breast cancer, among others.

Her testimony helped convince the commissioners to put three borrow pit renewals on hold and conduct a health and environmental study of Wedgewood. For all those whose complaints had gone unanswered for years, was it a turning point?

Click here to explore the community of Wedgewood and environmental hazards surrounding it.

A Piece of the American Dream

Julius and Aserdean Soles married in 1956 in a house Julius constructed on property he bought. They were a few miles north of Pensacola Bay and among the first in a brand new community for Black people.

For the few families living there at the time—farmers, retirees, veterans, people coming from government housing—it wasn’t uncommon to grow produce and to raise “cows and horses and pigs and chickens and that sort of thing,” Soles-Woods would say years later in a television interview. At the time, she said it was also a sought-after destination for Black people living in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Although it was still the era of Jim Crow, some Black families were able to attain a piece of the American Dream by owning their own homes which they would pass down to their children.

Salandrae Soles (left) and her big sister LaFanette Soles-Woods sit for a family portrait. Photo used courtesy of Salandrae Soles.
Salandrae Soles (left) and her big sister LaFanette Soles-Woods sit for a family portrait in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Salandrae Soles

In 1958, LaFanette Soles was born. Her sister, Salandrae, came three-and-a-half years later. Salandrae preferred sports and cheerleading, while her big sister was always more mechanically inclined. Salandrae said that her sister took after their grandmother, “a tomboy” who “didn’t wait for a man to do something.”

While the girls were growing up, Escambia County, Florida’s first and westernmost county, bustled with commerce. Its storied history of industrialization, dating back to the early 19th Century, included paper mills, wood treating plants and shipping. But that wealth was often extracted mercilessly from the subtropical terrain.

A prime example of disregard for the habitat was the Escambia Wood Treating Company, which bathed railroad ties, telephone poles and other wood products in creosote, a sticky distillate of coal laced with the carcinogen dioxin, one of the most dangerous known substances. The facility operated between 1942 and 1982 just a few miles southeast of Wedgewood, becoming so contaminated it earned the moniker “Mount Dioxin.” Eventually, 400 nearby households were permanently relocated between 1997 and 2008. It was one of the first such instances of environmental-related mass relocation in American history and the third-largest.

In addition to Mount Dioxin, Escambia County is home to six other Superfund sites, places deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to have been contaminated with hazardous substances. It also has 56 Brownfield sites, which the EPA defines as property tainted by “the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

“Escambia County, being one of the oldest communities in the United States, has a lot of old industrial brownfields and industrial areas that were abandoned,” said Chips Kirschenfeld, who serves as the Escambia County director of the Department of Natural Resources and the deputy county administrator. “And they left behind soil contamination and groundwater contamination.”

Below the borrow pits in Wedgewood, and throughout the region in general, is the area’s primary source of drinking water, which a 1990 report from the U.S. Geological Survey described as a “sand and gravel aquifer, like other shallow aquifers, [that] is readily susceptible to contamination.” Groundwater contamination is expensive and difficult to clean up, if not impossible in some cases. The absence of landfill liners, typically made of clay, only made matters worse in Wedgewood.

When Soles-Woods was a kid, the area was completely forested, except for one or two borrow pits hidden among the trees, which were unregulated. It wasn’t until 2006 that the county required them to have permits, and not until 2015 that they were required to have “reclamation plans,” which describe how a company plans to utilize the area once it has finished digging.

Landfills, a common form of reclamation, were unregulated and could run more or less wherever facility owners pleased until 1994. Still, they weren’t required to have liners until 2010, long after they’d already been in use.

LaFanette Soles-Woods poses for a portrait during basic training after joining the Air Force in February 1978. Photo courtesy of Salandrae Soles.

Soles-Woods—“LaFa” to her friends and family—left Wedgewood in 1978, after two years of university, to join the U.S. Air Force. She started out as a mechanic repairing jet brakes, but after breaking bones in her hand on the job she later took on desk work, helping military families to relocate. Her 17-year military career took her around the country and beyond, to South Korea, the Philippines and Bahrain.

She returned home in 1995 as “a healthy 36-year-old,” she said. She and her husband, Timothy Woods, brought back Seleka, her adopted daughter from the Philippines, and their son, Zachary. She took a job as a secretary for the Salvation Army.

While she was gone, the one or two borrow pits from her childhood—then safe enough to play and swim in—had multiplied. Facility compliance records from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection show that their use as illegal dumping grounds had begun.

Four years after her return, a special grand jury convened by the state attorney issued remedies to address the pollution and the corruption that allowed it. Among its recommendations were that “communications between regulators and elected public officials” be recorded and made public and that “the Office of the State Attorney continue to investigate the failure of regulators to enforce environmental laws.”

By 2001, Soles-Woods had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As far as anyone knew, the disease didn’t run in her family. Was it somehow connected to the pollution all around her? she wondered. A cascade of illnesses followed over the next 20 years.

Three years later, the state attorney convened another grand jury to probe groundwater contamination. “More than one-half of the county’s public supply wells,” the panel concluded in its report, “has been contaminated with dry cleaning solvents, pesticides, or petroleum products.”

Soles-Woods would confront all manner of pollution and environmental violations in what would become another great test for her: the Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Recycling Center, which would loom over her community, literally, for years to come.

‘You Couldn’t Even Go Outside. Period’

The saga of the Rolling Hills landfill—Wedgewood’s most notorious borrow pit-turned-dump—began in September 2007 when South Palafox Properties purchased it for $5.3 million from its previous owner. The plan, loan documents show, was to sell part of the property for a substantial pay-out in about three years after a major thoroughfare near Wedgewood was planned to be expanded from two lanes to five.

Heavy vehicles emitting diesel exhaust were already using roads in the area on a constant basis going to and from all of the borrow pits and landfills, passing by four different schools. Constructing this road would mean digging up all of that garbage. Diesel emissions have been shown to cause serious respiratory illnesses and to inflame existing lung and heart diseases, especially in children and the elderly.

No one, then, was surprised when churches, schools and the Wedgewood Homeowners Association balked at the proposal. The road expansion never happened.

In the meantime, Rolling Hills continued taking in trash at far lower rates than its competitors and racking up violations for seemingly everything possible: failing to contain objectionable smells, growing larger than what its permit allowed, contaminating surface water, having an inadequate bond, failing to submit a remediation plan and illegal dumping of all kinds of waste, including tires, treated wood, furniture and household garbage, according to court records.

How Landfills are Supposed to Work

One of its more notable hauls was rubble from Wedgewood Middle School, Soles-Woods said, which had been demolished because it was found to have harbored asbestos.

It was around this time, about a decade ago, that Soles-Woods’ father’s health deteriorated. One day while she was recuperating at her parents’ house after heart surgery, Julius Soles, an Army veteran of more than three decades, suddenly wandered away. He was found and rescued from a ditch in the neighborhood two days later.

“When they got him to the hospital, got him cleaned up and admitted, that night it froze,” Salandrae said. “He would have been dead.”

Although Julius had been in decline for some time and couldn’t exactly speak, he still sang along to songs at church. One day, unexpectedly, he regained clarity for the last time.

“On this one particular day he looked like himself,” Salandrae said. “He was able to tell everybody that he loved them. And then after that, he went back into that state and then he passed away that night.”

A few months before his death, in April 2014, a heavy rain began falling one afternoon as Soles-Woods’ mother, Aserdean, and Georgia Sunday, then the interim-president of the homeowners association, attended a county commissioners meeting to seek help on several issues—borrow pit contamination, the smell of rotten eggs wafting off the landfills and truck traffic in the neighborhood. 

As Sunday drove back home that evening, the water rose so high that it began seeping inside her blue Lincoln Towncar. “I just prayed, really, all the way home,” she said, having to stop three times to make it there safely.

About 20 inches of rain would fall in 24 hours. The deluge broke the protective barrier around Rolling Hills, spreading filth onto nearby residential property and forcing people out of their homes for days, weeks, months and in some cases permanently. 

Jimmie and Georgia Sunday have lived in their Wedgewood neighborhood home for 57 years in Pensacola Fl., Wednesday, Apr 23, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger
Jimmie and Georgia Sunday sit inside their Wedgewood home of the last 57 years in Pensacola, Florida, on April 23, 2022. Jimmie led an active lifestyle until about seven years ago when he became ill. “The COPD is something that kind of shocked us,” Georgia said, given that her husband wasn’t a smoker. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger

The storm caused at least $89 million in damage, which included destroying part of a road named Scenic Highway and rupturing a local jail’s gas line, killing two and injuring more than 180.

Afterward, the problems associated with the pits and landfills only got worse. Homeowners complained of omnipresent dust, nose bleeds, incessant noise, vomiting, vermin and litter. Above all else, there was the unbearable, rotten egg-like smell from hydrogen sulfide emissions—also known as “sewer gas”—which was at its worst from the evening to the early morning when the wind had died down.

The stench came from dissolving sheetrock that had been taken to Rolling Hills in the aftermath of the storm. It acted as a beacon and suddenly those who were largely unaware of the industrial activities in their backyard were now keenly interested in all of them. 

Hydrogen sulfide causes eye, nose and throat irritation at high enough levels, as well as headaches and weakness. It’s also flammable. The emissions from Rolling Hills were so bad, the county was forced to issue an air quality health alert for two weeks. A program for kids at the local community center—only 250 yards away from the dump—had to be relocated.

“You couldn’t even go outside. Period,” Soles-Woods said. Even though breathing was easier indoors, she still had to change her air conditioner filters twice a month. 

The odor threshold for the gas is around 1.5 parts per billion, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration says that workers should not be exposed to a peak of 50 ppb for more than 10 minutes in a single shift. The highest reading taken by the county was 590 ppb. When an engineer from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection went to see Rolling Hills—at this point essentially an open sore the size of a small mountain—she reported that the smell made her physically ill.

The problem was so bad that many people wanted to move. But because of the numerous environmental hazards nearby, residents said that their homes were virtually unsellable.

“So in essence, those borrow pits are stealing these Black homeowners’ transformative wealth,” said Robert Bullard, a pioneering sociologist at Texas Southern University, who gained prominence for his work on the preponderance of landfills and incinerators in Houston’s Black neighborhoods.

Signs are posted at the closed Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Facility in the Wedgewood community in Pensacola, Florida, on Apr 6, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger
Signs are posted at the closed Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Facility in the Wedgewood community in Pensacola, Florida, on Apr 6, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger

That same 2014 storm severly flooded more than 160 homes in the Bristol Park community, which was next to a creek about four miles northwest of Wedgewood. The people who lived there wanted Escambia County to make sure they were never flooded again. Instead, the county used a $6 million FEMA grant to buy and demolish 17 homes. Both Soles-Woods and her close friend, the Rev. Carrie Brown, said that no such help, as limited as it was, came to their community. For people living in Wedgewood, it was hard to overlook the fact that Bristol Park was mostly white.

Soon after the flood, the homeowners association started a Rolling Hills committee, which was co-chaired by Judy Cook, a singer known for her candor, and Aaron Wiley, a retired social worker. Soles-Woods was the committee’s third member.

They watched in the months ahead as environmental regulators cited a string of violations, beginning with a county violation notice for the hydrogen sulfide smell in June 2014. In July, Rolling Hills was cited by the state for accepting unauthorized waste and, as the dump soared to 141 feet, for exceeding its permitted size, court records show.

In August, the state Department of Environmental Protection filed an enforcement petition, demanding that Rolling Hills implement a promised remedial action plan, comply with surface water criteria and eliminate all hydrogen sulfide odors.

In May 2015, when multiple problems remained unabated, a special magistrate stepped in at the county’s behest and cut off incoming waste, essentially closing the landfill. A month later, the dump caught on fire twice, as flammable materials generated enough heat to spontaneously ignite. 

Finally, in June 2016, after appeals, an Escambia County judge ruled in favor of the county and the state and shut down the landfill for good. The cleanup, which was supposed to take months, would drag on for years and cost $2 million.

‘I Just Do One Day at a Time’ 

Just weeks before the judge ordered the closure of Rolling Hills, Soles-Woods, the Rev. Brown, and Sunday of the homeowners association filed a class action lawsuit against South Palafox Properties that foreshadowed intensifying activism in Wedgewood. 

The suit alleged the company’s operations had been “negligent and conducted with reckless indifference to the health and welfare of the community and Plaintiffs in this case.” 

A view of the former Rolling Hills Landfill on March 3, 2022. After a massive flash flood in April 2014, it emitted an enormous amount of hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. After community pushback, it was shut down the following year.

Rolling Hills may have been closed, but the nuisance, like the lawsuit, would last for years.

The landfill, yet again, spontaneously caught fire in early 2017 and burned across five acres for two weeks. “There’s real bad smoke,” Soles-Woods told a reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. “The landfill already had a bad smell, but with the smoke on top it made it even worse. It made it real difficult to breathe in or out of your house.”

When Dee Dee Sharp, the host of a public affairs show called AWARE!, asked her how she coped with the pollution and smell and environmental negligence in the neighborhood, Soles-Woods’ eyes welled with tears and her voice cracked.

“I just do one day at a time. I’m a survivor, and that’s the way I have to go,” she said. “It’s one day at a time.” 

During her tenure as a community leader, Soles-Woods witnessed an astounding degree of suffering and death. In “Voiceless,” a 2019 documentary by Wedgewood native Marcus Stallworth, Soles-Woods recounted what happened to Judy Cook and Aaron Wiley, with whom she had worked on their three-member Rolling Hills committee back in 2014. 

Cook had sung at about 40 funerals between February and June of that year, Soles-Woods recalled. “People [were] just dying like flies.” 

Since then, Soles-Woods told the filmmaker, “Judy has had three strokes and she’s in a nursing home and she can’t take care of herself.” Cook also developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease despite never smoking. “And she can’t sing anymore,” Soles-Woods said.

Wiley had suffered a massive heart attack and was taken by his family back to Detroit, Soles-Woods continued, where he later died. 

“And then that left me,” Soles-Woods said. “So, I’m the only one from our committee that is still here.”

Signs alert people of the possible presence of hydrogen sulfide in the Wedgewood community in Pensacola Florida, on April 6, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger

Still, she and the remaining neighborhood activists held out hope. They prevailed in their class action suit, with the court ordering South Palafox Properties to pay the plaintiffs $3.8 million, which it agreed to do in August 2020. But like so much in the long fight against Rolling Hills, their victory fell painfully short.

Two months before the judgment, business filings show that three South Palafox principals resigned from their positions in the company and added a lawyer as its registered agent to accept tax and legal documents on its behalf. To this day, none of the money has been paid out.

Richard Beckish, an attorney who was the previous registered agent for South Palafox Properties, said that the company has not turned a profit since 2015 and had no way of complying with the court’s judgment. And because South Palafox Properties is a Limited Liability Company, its members are not personally responsible for its debts.

“It seems to me that everybody is making money around us, off of us,” the Rev. Brown said

“It’s firmly my belief that if we got a good lawyer to go after these guys, we could get some money from them to pay back the county for what it cost us to close it, as well as create a fund of money for medical assistance to citizens in Wedgewood,” said Doug Underhill, the county commission’s vice chairman. 

Last August, as Underhill and his colleagues considered three borrow pit renewals—the specter of which helped put advocacy efforts into high gear after the relative quiet of the Covid-19 pandemic—Soles-Woods, walking to the microphone on her own, made her appearance before the commission, along with other community representatives.

They got help from a frequent ally, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which has for decades fought for people living in Lousiana’s infamous “Cancer Alley”—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which hosts more than 150 oil, chemical and plastics facilities. 

The Deep South Center had already put its own muscle behind the struggle in Wedgewood by conducting town halls with homeowners and citizen-science workshops that taught mapping and flood risk assessment skills. It has also looked for funding to relocate those in Wedgewood who wish to do so, which would cost about $40 million.

For the permit renewal meeting, it drafted a letter of support that said residents had observed “leachate”—runoff contaminated by landfill debris—“entering their neighborhood” from the tree recycling facility during a flood.

Using a combination of research and appeals to emotion, Soles-Woods and the others asked the commissioners to put a hold on permit renewals, one of which included a giant sand mine. The commission agreed and gave itself 30 days to come up with a plan to carry out a health and environmental assessment.

Two months later, Soles-Woods went to a dentist appointment at 7:30 a.m. for a routine cleaning. It was a new clinic for her, so she explained its location to her mother on the phone while driving there. 

As she walked in, she began having trouble breathing and was taken to an examination chair. She took two doses of nitroglycerin for her heart and called her mother back in a panic—”Mama, mama, I need you,” she said. Aserdean got there in six minutes, she said, beating the medics. It was the first of five heart attacks Soles-Woods would suffer. She died the next day—on Oct. 1—at the age of 63.

Many people first got word of her death through Facebook, including her close friend Gloria Horning, an environmental justice advocate whose research and vigor were instrumental to the Wedgewood fight. “All she ever wanted out of this battle was to move from her home that was poisoning her,” she said, before taking a very long pause. “She didn’t get that chance.”

After her death, neighbors felt lost. “She was the mother hen,” Aserdean Soles said from her covered backyard patio filled with plants, including one from her daughter’s funeral. 

“She did everything for everybody,” her sister Salandrae said with a smile. “And nobody realized that she was doing as much as she was doing until she died. And I’m thinking that’s probably what killed her.” 

Aserdean Soles and her daughter Salandrae Soles hold a photo of LaFanette Soles-Woods who recently passed away in Pensacola Florida. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger
Aserdean Soles and her daughter Salandrae Soles hold a photo of LaFanette Soles-Woods who recently passed away in Pensacola Florida. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger

Bullard, the Texas Southern University sociologist, said he gained immense respect for Soles-Woods after working with her in Wedgewood.

“If you look at the history of the environmental justice movement and environmental justice groups, Black women, strong Black women have carried the mantle for a lot of our communities,” he said, days after Soles-Woods’ death. “LaFanette comes from a long line of Black women who just refuse to say no.” 

Justice Comes to Wedgewood 

Dali Williams, a close friend, had a memorial tree planted for Soles-Woods as a sign that her work lives on. “In memory of my dear friend Lafa,” she wrote on her Facebook wall. “May this tree’s roots go deep into the ground and withstand the storms of life like you did my friend. May it be fruitful and produce abundant seeds so it can have an impact on its surroundings just like you did my friend.” 

Last month, Escambia County signed off on $450,000 for new environmental justice initiatives. Some of the money will be spent on three air monitors to be placed for three years near the concrete crushing facility in Wedgewood, Sunbelt Crushing, which is across the street from an elementary school, a high school, a tutoring academy and a technical college. Rock crushing produces harmful silica which can travel for significant distances, and children breathe more deeply than adults do. The facility also sits next to protected wetlands that feed into a nearby bayou.

The funds will also go toward hiring an environmental analyst, said Kirschenfeld, the county’s environmental chief, to “incorporate environmental justice reviews into our ordinances” for new construction projects. Tennessee State University professor David Padgett has been selected for the position. 

He is a member of an environmental justice consortium of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) that is co-directed by Bullard, of Texas Southern, and Beverly Wright, of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. The Rev. Calvin Avant and Pastor Timothy Grier, who run Pensacola’s Unity in the Family Ministry and were allies of Soles-Woods, are members as well.

Dr. Calvin Avant and Pastor Timothy Grier stand at the entrance to the Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Facility in the Wedgewood neighborhood in Pensacola Florida on April 6, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger
Dr. Calvin Avant and Pastor Timothy Grier stand at the entrance to the Rolling Hills Construction and Demolition Facility in the Wedgewood neighborhood in Pensacola Florida on April 6, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger
LEFT: Dr. Beverly Wright, the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, attends the Eighth Annual HBCU Climate Change Conference in April 2022. For years, she has led pioneering environmental justice work in the Gulf Coast region, especially in Louisiana’s infamous “Cancer Alley.” Credit: Emily Kask. RIGHT: Dr. Gloria Horning is an environmental activist, social scientist and advocate stands outside in April 2022. She has worked with the Wedgewood community since 2014, and her research into solid waste facilities was crucial in the community’s fight to hold Escambia County accountable. Photo by Michael Spooneybarger

Another $100,000 of the $450,000 will go to fund an update of the county’s stormwater plan, which is critical to realizing another key environmental milestone in Wedgewood: transitioning away from septic tanks and making the community part of the county’s sewer system. 

Florida, the first state to implement stormwater rules, didn’t do so until 1982, long after the Olive Heights and Rolling Hills neighborhoods were built. So the county’s ad hoc environmental justice committee is working with the Emerald Coast Utility Authority to extend the county’s sewer system, said Kirschenfeld. This would entail providing the area with much-needed curbs and gutters that would direct stormwater into retention ponds. At the moment, he said, “the water just flows right off the asphalt into people’s yards.” 

Barbara Harris, 70, wants to know when the local utility’s sewer line will finally be extended to her neighborhood. “I call, I call, I call,” the retired factory worker said.

She lives in Olive Heights, on the southeast border of a massive borrow pit mined for sand, which had overflown before. There’s a water retention pond at the end of the street, but that overflows too. And flood insurance is too expensive for her to afford. Those aren’t her only problems.

“The house seems like it’s shifting,” she said. “You can straighten the pictures up one day, then you wake up the next morning [and] all of them are crooked.”

A view of the sand mine and the bordering Olive Heights neighborhood on March 3, 2022. Over the last several decades, erosion has shortened the gap between groundwater and the community’s homes.

She recently had to replace her septic tank for the third time because the earth keeps moving beneath it.

Then there’s her health which suffers from persistent mining and gigantic diesel trucks rumbling to and fro. “You can dust the house over and over again, but every day dust just accumulates,” Harris said. “There are trucks just coming in and out, in and out.”

Until a few years ago, “I used to walk five miles per day,” she said. “I can’t walk half a mile now without getting out of breath.” She sees seven doctors and uses two inhalers to keep her breathing. She’s also attentive to the health of her neighbors. By her count, there have been seven cancer victims on her street. “Four of the seven had cancer of the lungs,” she said.

Last month, the Rev. Brown sat in her living room with her friend Sunday, a retired nurse, both of whom arrived in the 1960s and are prominent members of the community. They, too, had compiled a tally of the dead. Wedgewood has approximately 300 households, and their list, going back to around 2014 and by no means exhaustive, contained more than 70 names.

Rev. Carrie Brown stands in front of her home where she has lived since 1967 in Wedgewood neighborhood in Pensacola Florida on Wednesday, April 10, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger
Rev. Carrie Brown stands in front of her home where she has lived since 1967 in Wedgewood neighborhood in Pensacola Florida on Wednesday, April 10, 2022. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger

The Rev. Brown wrote to her lawyer in September, begging him to try and shake loose the $3.8 million awarded to community members in their class action suit. “Our people are dying here waiting for a settlement,” she said.

The county commission, meanwhile, has put the three borrow pit renewals on hold, although the facilities are allowed to continue operating until the environmental impact assessment being undertaken by numerous organizations is completed. Unity in the Family Ministry, the Wedgewood Homeowners Association, the Florida Department of Health and the Emerald Coast Utility Authority, among other organizations, have banded together for the project, which could take two years or longer.

“It saddens me to stand here this evening for the first time since my friend LaFanette Soles-Woods passed,” said Rev. Brown during an April 7 county commissioners meeting. “As you know, she was down here for years begging for assistance out there in Wedgewood.”

She thanked Wedgewood’s representative, Lumon May, the only Black commissioner, and other members of the five-seat board “for what you have done to help us. But as you said, there’s much more work to be done.”

Eleven days ago, Soles-Woods’ son, Zachary, 28, sat outside of Wedgewood’s community center on a windy day, his back to the Rolling Hills landfill. He said that on some days, he and his sister have trouble breathing. But no doctor has been able to pin down what the problem is, he said. Although Rolling Hills is now covered, he said heavy rains still resurrect the familiar stench that comes from hydrogen sulfide. 

Zachary Woods stands outside of the Marie K. Young Community Center on April 20, 2022. Woods, a member of the Air Force Reserves, said he wants to continue his mother's fight to clean up Wedgewood. Credit: Agya K. Aning
Zachary Woods stands outside of the Marie K. Young Community Center on April 20, 2022. Woods, a member of the Air Force Reserves, said he wants to continue his mother’s fight to clean up Wedgewood. Credit: Agya K. Aning

He is a music instructor at West Florida High School and a member of the Air Force Reserves. He plans on following in his mother’s footsteps in another way too.

“I’m going to try to take over from where she left off,” Zachary said. “I’m going to make sure that her legacy lives on.”

His mother is laid to rest in the Barrancas National Cemetery at Pensacola’s Navy base, home of the Blue Angels. His aunt Salandrae chose the epitaph on her headstone:

“I fought a good fight.”

The sun shines on the headstone of LaFanette Soles-Woods on April 22, 2022. She is laid to rest in Barrancas National Cemetery at Pensacola's Navy base. Her sister Salandrae chose her epitaph.
The sun shines on the headstone of LaFanette Soles-Woods on April 22, 2022. She is laid to rest in Barrancas National Cemetery at Pensacola’s Navy base. Her sister Salandrae chose her epitaph. Credit: Agya K. Aning

Additional research by Julie Margolin

This story was supported by the Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grant through the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.