Almost 30 years ago, coal tar contamination was discovered on the site of a former Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP) on Bramlett Road in the Southernside Community of Greenville. Coal tar was first encountered in a large tract of wetlands south of Bramlett Road and adjacent to the Reedy River.
The coal tar was discovered because an illegal landfill had been operating in these wetlands, and inspectors were onsite to evaluate the landfill. The source of the coal tar was quickly traced to the former MGP site northeast of these wetlands, at the corner of E. Bramlett Road and W. Washington Street.
Testing for the location and extent of contamination began in 1994, and it continues today with no end in sight. Early testing immediately revealed that, based on the extent of contamination and the hydrology in the area, it was likely that contaminated groundwater was discharging into the Reedy River. Twenty-eight years later, this likelihood still has not been fully explored.
Over the years, Duke Energy has employed many different environmental consultants who have proposed and undertaken various testing and have prepared dozens of lengthy reports. Yet, the latest proposal by Duke, in 2018, set the stage for years more testing, and this proposal still sidestepped the most critical locations and questions on the site.
Frustrated by the lack of progress and seeming disinterest in pursuing progress, we commissioned our own testing at critical locations on the site and retained expert consultants to generate an independent review of Duke’s results over 25 years and our own testing. That report was finalized in 2019, with concrete recommendations for immediate cleanup.
First, in terms of our testing, the objective was to determine whether toxins continue to discharge into the Reedy from the ditch that was used to carry coal tar laden wastewater from the facility during its operation. This ditch originated from the facility, went south under Bramlett Road and continued approximately 800 yards through the wetlands to a discharge point on the Reedy River at Willard Road. This discharge point is at the very southern end of the affected property, much further south than what Duke has portrayed as the limit of contamination. Today, the final piece of this discharge ditch runs under the Swamp Rabbit Trail, adjacent to the boundary of Unity Park.
Five samples have been collected from the discharge ditch near the point where it enters the River. The total carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (carcinogenic PAHs ) in those samples ranged from 6,600 to 22,800 ug/kg, with an average around 16,500 ug/kg. The standard for cleanup that Duke has previously used on this site is 319 ug/kg. Testing in the Reedy River around the discharge point confirms that these toxins are entering the River. Just upstream of the discharge point, all samples have come back negative for carcinogenic PAHs. Just downstream of the discharge point, carcinogenic PAHs registered at 2,412 ug/kg.
The team at Aquilogic, Inc. has extensive experience evaluating contamination specifically at former MGP sites. Based on their review of all available data on this site, Aquilogic concluded that a significant cleanup should proceed immediately. In particular, Aquilogic recommended immediate removal of the old landfill and excavation of the ponds and various other deposits of coal tar on which it sits. In addition, excavation should occur along the length of the discharge ditch, including all contaminated soil in and around this historic conduit for coal tar. After these excavations, a pump-and-treat system should be installed in order to purify the remaining contaminated groundwater plume in the wetlands. Finally, Aquilogic made specific recommendations for testing that should take place immediately in order to finally answer the question of whether the contaminated groundwater plume from the facility itself has reached the River.
The contamination in the project area, along with the vacant, unusable land it produces, are a significant drag on the overall well-being of surrounding Southernside, a predominantly low income, African-American community.
Greenville had a second MGP operation in the early 1900s on Broad Street, across from what is now Northampton Wine. The condition of the Broad Street and Bramlett sites today tells a story of environmental inequity and of how the natural environment of all Greenvillians is not created equal.
Duke Power's cleanup of the Broad Street MGP started in 1995. Workers dug to the bedrock during multiple excavations of the property and utilized sophisticated aeration and injection systems to restore the property for residential development. Today on the old Broad Street site, one can experience “luxury living in Greenville” at the Ellison on Broad apartment complex.
In Southernside, by contrast, the only “redevelopment” of the Bramlett MGP site is a failing barbed wire fence designed to keep residents out. Other than limited removal of structures and surface coal tar in 2000, contamination from the Bramlett MGP operation remains in the ground and water of Southernside, spreading toward and into the Reedy River.
As Special Counsel Michael Corley wrote in the Greenville News:
How did two sites within the same city, contaminated by the same toxins, from the same operation during the same time period, by the same company, end up with such divergent outcomes? The answer most certainly has to do with the identity of the residents in the communities surrounding those sites.
The concept of environmental justice emerged from recognition that certain communities—typically low-income, minority, rural, or those otherwise lacking in political or capital influence — are often forced to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harm. Indeed, in my career as a public interest environmental lawyer, I’ve observed that new landfills don’t tend to get sited near second homes; that highway expansions don’t disrupt wealthy neighborhoods; and that complaints from certain zip codes tend to get an inspector onsite more quickly.
As of 2022, Duke Energy has completed its investigation into the highly polluted Bramlett Site. Before it can start the actual cleanup of the site, it needs to conduct the feasibility study - an evaluation of various cleanup options. However, the nearly 150,000 tons of construction and demolition debris in the unpermitted landfill must be removed from the wetlands in order for Duke Energy to properly remove all contaminated soil from the site.
On August 19, 2022, Duke Energy submitted its “Focused Feasibility Study Work Plan,” which sets forth several different remedial alternatives for the Site. DHEC has approved the Feasibility Study Work Plan, and Duke Energy is currently conducting the feasibility study. Once Duke Energy completes the study, DHEC will review it and ultimately select its preferred clean-up alternative. Recognizing this critical opportunity to advocate for the complete and thorough remediation of the entire Bramlett Site, SCELP submitted a letter urging DHEC to adopt the remedial alternative Aquilogic recommended in its report over three and a half years ago.
SCELP's close scrutiny of the reports and data created over the last thirty years has led it one conclusion: The only alternative capable of accomplishing the goals stated in the work plan—to restore soils and sediments to residential standards and restore groundwater to the appropriate maximum contaminant level—is excavation of all contaminated soils and sediments, including the Vaughn Landfill, and a pump and treat system to restore the groundwater. Our letter noted several key findings that demonstrate the necessity for DHEC to adopt this alternative. Specifically, soil samples located alarmingly close to the Legacy Charter School contained levels of carcinogens far beyond residential screening levels.
In addition to these highly contaminated samples near an elementary school, we pointed out how DHEC's conclusion regarding its soil sampling near Mountain View Baptist Church and the surrounding community is extraordinarily flawed. DHEC concluded and informed the community that the soil was unaffected by the contamination from the Bramlett Site and the former operations of the MGP. However, this conclusion is significantly flawed because it ignored the fact that the background sample it relied on contains elevated levels because of its close proximity to the Bramlett Site and is itself tainted:
Contrary to DHEC's conclusion, the differing results for the Southernside Sample and the North Main Sample demonstrate that the Bramlett MGP has affected soils surrounding Mountain View Baptist Church, which should be included as part of any remediation efforts.
Finally, our letter also discredited the prior justifications for Duke Energy's decision not to excavate the Vaughn Landfill. Specifically, the primary rationale in the late 1990s for not excavating the landfill was based on an unsupported—indeed, dubious—assertion that doing so “would likely result in severe damage, if not complete destruction, to the wetland environment” and because biological assessments indicated that the MGP constituents “has no adverse impact to fauna.” First, the wetlands were already filled and destroyed by using them as a landfill. Second, the biological assessments conducted never tested any of the aquatic life for the presence of any benzene, naphthalene, benzo(a)pyrene, or any other MGP-related constituents. Finally, the assessment evaluating the effect of the MGP constituents on wildlife was completely unsound because it conducted an exceptionally flawed comparison of drastically different conditions that failed to provide any valuable insight into the contaminants' detrimental effect on wildlife.
CSXT has claimed in a letter to DHEC that it bears no liability for the removing the landfilled material because it never allowed the dumping of a massive amount of debris onto its property. CSXT makes this claim even though Vaughn Construction and Demolition attempted to purchase property on site from CSXT for the express purpose of constructing a solid waste landfill. CSXT makes this claim even though Vaughn engaged in illegal landfilling activities for at least five years next to a CSXT office despite never completing the property transfer.
SCELP is currently evaluating CSXT's claim and any liability it has for contributing to the complete clean up of the Bramlett Site. CSXT cannot stand behind such willful blindness to avoid liability, and SCELP will push for CSXT to participate in the clean-up for its share of the contamination on the Site as the feasibility study and remedial action process moves forward.