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tv   Matter of Fact With Soledad O Brien  NBC  July 10, 2022 5:00am-5:30am PDT

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announcer: right now on "matter of fact," when hundreds of trucks loaded with toxic waste came to their community, neighbors sat down in the streets. joie: what did you think? when you saw these images of people in your home community, putting their bodies down in front of these dump trucks? >> wow. wow. everyday people standing up, because they know this is wrong. , announcer: what we can learn from the residents of warren county, north carolina about taking a stand for environmental justice. plus, an arizona family has worked this land for generations. >> this is our family legacy.
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this is what we know how to do. announcer: now, a decades-long drought could destroy their way of life. >> there was just not enough water to push down the canals. the dam got to zero feet. announcer: what's the cost to america's farm families when the water runs out? and she's got a 100% success rate when it comes to teaching kids about science. >> science is fun. there's too much cool stuff in it. it's a matter of how we teach it. announcer: how this award-winning teacher makes climate change matter for every student in her class. ♪ soledad: i'm soledad o'brien. welcome to "matter of fact." landfills, brown fields, and dirty industrial plants are all sources of pollution with negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. those communities are often under-resourced and lack the political power to fight off big polluters. that's the story of warren county, north carolina. highly toxic chemicals seeped into the ground there after the
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state decided to dump thousands of truckloads of soil contaminated with pcb's. our special contributor joie chen has the story of how the community came together in the battle for environmental justice. joie: in a community where growing and god share space in the landscape, justice did roll down like the waters -- though it traveled a twisted path to get here. from ancient times, the tuscarora indians saw healing powers in the mineral waters here. by the late 1800's, spas touted warren county waters as a cure-all for anything from -- for almost anything. the rural community remained best known for health and healing until 1982 and a fork in the road. where was the site? >> the site was down this road right here. about a mile and a half.
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joie: north carolina created a 25-acre dumpsite for toxic chemicals, pcb's -- which were known cancer-causing agents -- why did they pick warren county? >> i think for three reasons. we were poor. we were african american. we were politically impotent. joie: but they weren't powerless. flanked by national civil rights and local church leaders, dollie burwell led her community in a first-of-its kind environmental justice protest. >> we are calling for an investigation of the epa decision to allow pcb's to be dumped here. joie: hundreds were arrested -- burwell went to jail five times. people call you the mother of environmental justice.
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>> yes, but you know i don't call myself that. because, again, i was not trying to create a movement. i was doing what my mother told me to do, which was, when you see something, and you know it's not right, speak up against it. joie: but neither prayers nor protests stopped the trucks. the toxic swamp remained until the early 2000s, when political will and technology finally cleaned it up. burwell says it's a lesson for today's environmental activists. >> that we may lose the battle, but the war, we could win. and for me, that war was warren county not becoming a permanent toxic waste site. [singing] joie: today in the community that launched the decades-long fight for justice, a new activism. led by reverend bill kearney, a warren county native who returned after decades as a d.c. police officer to pursue social justice here.
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>> we still feel like we don't have a voice. joie: do you think you've been underestimated at all as a community? >> i think so. and that's what excites me about the story. everyday people came together in one voice to resist the powers that be. joie: while he admires what the early activists achieved, kearney still questions what might have been. >> suppose that $18 million that was used to remediate the site had been used for education, health opportunities, job opportunities, housing? how much further down the road we could be as a county. my perspective is we buried $18 million in the ground. joie: today, his focus is on the road ahead, demanding state leaders better monitor -- better monitor the environment and holding up warren county as a model for environmental justice. >> we don't want to be known as the dumpsite, but we don't want to forget it.
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i think as we move forward, we should always be aware that we got dumped on but we birthed a movement. joie: a movement that still grows, and brings hope for even the smallest communities. for "matter of fact," i'm joie chen in warren county, north carolina. announcer: next on "matter of fact," farmers cut off from their water sources, facing their worst fears. >> this drought has just been one that i don't think any of us expected and not sure how to deal with it. announcer: what the mega drought means for families whose lives are tied to the land. and later, a century ago, victory gardens sprouted on rooftops, fire escapes, in back yards, and empty lots to feed a nation at war. now urban farmers are rising up in the battle against food insecurity. >> when you take a group of elementary students in this country and you ask them to close their eyes and visualize what a farmer is, it doesn't look like me. [laughs] announcer: a look at the roots of the movement to feed our communities.
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soledad: the western u.s. is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in the country's history. known as a megadrought, it can last for decades and cause severe water shortages, like those in the west -- including california, nevada and arizona. the majority of arizona farmers depend on the colorado and gila rivers to irrigate their crops. with the colorado river water supply at just 36% capacity, regulators are cutting off water rights to conserve what's left. our correspondent dina demetrius traveled to casagrande, arizona to talk with the caywood family about the drought that's got their lives -- and their land -- in its grip. >> on my way out here i passed by the canal and there was no water in it and i just burst into tears. dina: in the heart of the southwestern desert, in pinal county, arizona, nancy caywood's farm emerges from the arid terrain like a little piece of
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eden. but at ground level, the struggle both the land and her family endure becomes clear. does this alfalfa look like how you would like it to look? >> no. we would like it to look a lot thicker. we were into a kind of a situation where it was not greening up at all. and so do you take it out? do you take a chance that it's going to rebound? and if it does rebound, is it going to be worth the water? dina: the caywoods have been productive cotton and forage crop farmers for 100 years -- four generations farming 247 acres. but before he passed last year, caywood's father wondered if it would make it to a fifth. >> he was very concerned about the drought, you know? and he said, i don't know how much longer you guys can hang in. dina: last april, the san carlos irrigation district, which provides water from the gila river to caywood and her neighbors, cut down -- then
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completely cut off -- off-irrigation for several months. with no water, the caywoods planted no cotton -- a primary crop. >> we probably have 50% to 60% of our ground fallow. dina: that's a huge hit to your farm. >> it's a very large hit and it hurts, you know, financially. it's just breaking us. dina: the years-long drought has ravaged the area. coolidge dam and its reservoir, san carlos lake, which provides irrigation to hundreds of farms, plummeted to 3% of full capacity. now this main canal is bone dry. >> you are going to see around 60% fallowing this year. dina: stephen miller is the chair of the pinal county board of supervisors and sits on the board of the central arizona project, which manages the colorado river's canals and allocations through three counties. >> it's going to definitely have an effect on the economics of this community. $2.8 billion dollars are generated in the ag community in pinal county. there's going to be less cotton grown, there may be less hay
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grown. there's already herd depletion in the dairy industry. >> we are talking about if we have to sell to try to buy land in a more, you know, where there's more water available to us. but i think we're still in shock that we said the "s" word. you know, the "sale" word is just almost more than any of us could emotionally handle. dina: for now, the caywoods are looking to deeper ground water wells for a reprieve. >> it just gives is this little tiny, shiny bit of hope that could happen, because if it happens, that's water. dina: and it's that little bit of hope that allows the caywoods to continue staying rooted in pinal county -- for now. >> this is our family legacy. this is what we know how to do. this is what we're about. this is us. dina: in casagrande, arizona, i'm dina demetrius for "matter of fact." announcer: coming up on "matter of fact," her classroom is a magnet for kids who love hands on learning.
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>> if you want you can try to test it out now by spinning it. announcer: meet the science educator behind a one-of-kind climate change academy. and still ahead, is florida ditching its palm trees for climate fighting foliage?
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soledad: it's no secret that climate change is happening. nasa reports that earth's average temperature has risen by almost 34 degrees fahrenheit since 1880 -- and the majority -- two degrees fahrenheit since 1880 -- and the majority of the hottest years have been in the
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last two decades. catastrophic weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, which will leave future generations dealing with serious consequences. that's why a science teacher in fayetteville, north carolina is educating kids about climate change and practical ways to slow it down. denise renfro is a 2021 recipient of the epa's presidential innovation award for environmental educators. >> good morning and welcome to byrd-land. soledad: it's tuesday morning at douglas byrd high school. visiting fifth graders from mary mcarthur elementary school are learning about some cool technology. >> okay, outstanding. the station's up now. science is fun. there's too much cool stuff in it. it's a matter of how we teach it. soledad: denise renfro runs the school's academy of green technology. >> we do workshops in renewable energy, wind turbines, solar. and then we have added drones to that. >> my favorite are the drones that we're doing now, because i used to be in drone class before the pandemic and it was fun. >> i didn't even know they can turn on with computers or phones.
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i thought they were just controls. >> the wind turbines, 'cause we get to learn about different stuff and the stuff that we learned about is how they work and what they do for us. >> when it is in the wind it actually makes music. i'm not sure if you can see it. soledad: denise's high school students lead the workshops. not only do they enjoy it, it also gives them valuable leadership experience. >> my kids spend four years studying renewable energy from the time they're freshmen through their senior year. soledad: these students live in a minority, low-income community. the school struggles with poor graduation rates and limited stem opportunities. but the academy of green technology is trying to fix that. >> we're a stem academy when it comes right down to it. and kids need unique new, different experiences, and our community doesn't always get those. you have power. i can't tell you how many of our
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kids have never been to the beach and we're 80 miles away, right? i think 74% of my kids go on to college and the school as a whole is maybe 35% or 37%. we have 100% graduate from our program, which is also pretty good. so, i consider those successes. but i also consider things like besides just scholarships and graduation, they're becoming productive members of society in general. if you want, you can try to test it out now by spinning it. there's nothing more important than teaching youth about climate change and the environment. we have done a terrible job as adults. we have handed the ball to them to fix this. so, i think it's imperative that we teach them. soledad: denise renfro has also received the north carolina governor's educator discovery award. she's using the grant to start an electric vehicle program. students will build an electric vehicle from the ground up. very cool and extremely timely. announcer: ahead on "matter of fact," getting fresh food to people living in food deserts.
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>> so there aren't many farms that can say that their lettuce is being harvested within a bike ride of where like 95% of their customers live. announcer: how this woman inspired others to turn a field into a farm to feed her inspired others to turn a field into a farm to feed her community. - [announcer] the more we learn about covid-19, the more questions we have. the biggest question now, what's next? what will covid bring in six months, a year? if you're feeling anxious about the future,
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you're not alone. calhope offers free covid-19 emotional support. call 833-317-4673, or live chat at today. v.v.
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soledad: welcome back to "matter of fact." need a banana? running out of milk? just make a quick trip to the grocery store, right? well, what if that quick trip means traveling more than 10 miles? that's the challenge 23 million americans face, living in places known as food deserts. these are areas where finding fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy affordable food options is difficult. an example, the nation's capitol, where more than 11% of the city is considered a food desert. but community organizers are trying to change that by growing the urban farm movement. >> when you take a group of
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elementary students in this country and you ask them to close their eyes and visualize what a farmer is, it doesn't look like me. [laughs] soledad: and so gail taylor went on a mission to change that perception. creating this space, the three part harmony farm, right in the heart of washington, d.c. >> we are basically like a greens and roots and earth and flower farm. soledad: gail, her partners john and cristina, along with trainees and volunteers, work 6 days a week to cultivate the land, then distribute the produce to a local community-supported agriculture program, or csa. >> our csa is different because it's urban. so there aren't many farms that can say that their lettuce is being harvested within a bike ride of where like 95% of their customers live. soledad: gail says it's also different because it partners with other farms to bring its members a wider range of products. those farms are carefully chosen. >> none of the contributing farms to our csa are owned by majority cisgender white men. one of the things that's hard
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for farmers of color is to have access to land is a huge thing. but access to markets is a really big thing. soledad: it hasn't been easy -- gail's quest began in 2011. a trained farmer and a former policy advocate, she found this plot of land. >> it's a two acre parcel of land that's been owned for over 100 years by an order of priests, the missionary outlets in mary immaculate, and i approached them about starting a vegetable farm on their property. >> we will start with ms. taylor. >> we all have a role to play in increasing environmental changes in the city. soledad: together with church representatives, law students and a local council member, she drafted a bill that encouraged people to lease their land to farmers in exchange for tax benefits. the legislation , now known as the d.c. farm bill, passed in 2014. and the three part harmony farm was born. >> black women farmers are a dying population.
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having land that you can actually grow on in the black community is now down to less than 2% in the nation. so for all the reasons, it's important. soledad: as the market wraps up, the day winds down. it's been 13 hours of non-stop work for gail and the team. but one with a simple reward. >> my dream is for myself and my staff just to wake up and to be able to do this and only to grow food from people we care about, to nourish our neighbors and have that be enough. announcer: straight ahead on "matter of fact," why florida's pa a
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soledad: and finally, palm trees are a big part of florida's landscape. but the instagram-worthy foliage may actually be doing more harm than good when it comes to the environment. the national oceanic and atmospheric administration, or noaa, reports atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years, making the earth hotter, faster.
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palm trees don't provide shade, cool down streets and sidewalks, or trap much carbon. the average palm tree in southern florida only absorbs about five pounds of co2 each year. that's not a lot when you compare them to other trees like mahogany, pines, cedars, and oaks. those trees hold an average of around 48 pounds of co2 annually. so now, there is an effort to plant more canopy trees in west palm beach and miami beach. by 2050, miami beach's palms should make up no more than 25% of the public tree count. so the famous trees will still be around, but there will also be a little bit more shade. that's it for this edition of "matter of fact." i'm soledad o'brien. we'll see you next week. if you missed our top stories about how a north carolina community fought a state order to make it a toxic dump site, the struggles of an arizona farm family hoping to survive the megadrought, an award- winning educator's approach to teaching climate change science and a
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look at an urban farmer tackling food insecurity in the nation's capitol, just go to and listen to "matter of fact" with soledad o'brien on your favorite podcast provider. watch us during the week on fyi, pluto, and youtube. ♪
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