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Nicole Cox

Ph.D. Candidate, History
2013-2014 Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship

Ph.D. candidate in History, Nicole Cox, used her Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship to research the wood-preservation industry and the making of superfund sites from the early twentieth century to the present day. While much attention concerning superfund sites is focused on the present-day clean-up efforts, there is a lack of historical information on how such hazardous waste sites were created and the social impacts of handling hazardous chemicals. Cox focused her research on wood-treatment facilities in the American South particularly locations in Gainesville, Florida; Texarkana, Texas; Macon, Georgia; and Norfolk, Virginia. Her findings show how the absence of historical data about many superfund sites makes it difficult to prevent such sites from appearing in the future. Cox discovers that there is still a significant need to confront these toxic sites and consider their placement within our global, industrial, historical and environmental past.

In order to reconstruct the history of the wood-treatment industry, Cox examines the factors that determine the placement of superfund sites, their length of existence, the ethical quandaries surrounding the sites at the height of their production, and the connections between issues of race, labor, and environmental injustice. The American South became a prime location for wood-treatment facilities because of its cheap land and labor, lax governmental regulations and abundant southern pine timber. Within this region, Cox traces how marginalized groups in social and economic hierarchies faced an unequal share of environmental hazards generated by wood-treatment facilities. Often the lowest paid and most unskilled workers handled wood treated with toxic chemicals, and even present day superfund sites are located near low-income neighborhoods. At the Gainesville Koppers plant, for example, Cox found that only black workers were initially used for all treatment processes like applying creosote, a thick oily substance that prevents wood decay but is also a carcinogen that contaminates air, soil, and groundwater. Repeated similar connections between race and labor surfaced at multiple wood-treatment facilities throughout the South. By looking at the historical roots of these sites, Cox takes a new approach to environmental research, expanding beyond scholars’ normal focus on immediate cleanup operations. Her focus on the development of wood-treatment facilities from their origin to the present day suggests that labor and racial inequalities form a critical element of the history of the American environment.

The Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship allowed Cox to explore archival records at UNC-Chapel Hill relating to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, a company whose records provide insight into the relationship between railroads and the wood-preservation industry. Additionally, Cox was able to research the early records of the Koppers Company (Penn State University) and the U.S. Forest History Society (Duke University) to further understand the wood-treatment process, worker health, and worker safety within the wood-preservation industry. After conducting her archival research, Cox found that focusing solely on the superfund period (1980-present) minimizes the complexity of these sites’ current pollution problems and absolves the companies that over a century ago ushered in an era of industrial pollution.

Cox’s research reveals the ongoing ethical issues concerning race and labor, the economic and personal impact of corporate environmental injustices, and how the longer history of superfund sites can help us address current pollution problems. Her work advances the scholarship and history of global environmental practices and narrates the complex nature of environmental injustice and activism.