The concept of environmental protection is often presented as if there is a single “environment” that we all share and rely upon. But, would you be surprised to know that, even within the city limits of Greenville, some of us must live with a more polluted and hazardous environment than others?
In the mid-1800s through the 1950s, before natural gas was available as an energy source, manufactured gas plants (MGPs) existed throughout the United States. These plants operated by processing coal and oil into gas for lighting, heating and cooking. In a time before environmental laws, the pollution emanating from these plants was significant and poorly managed. Today, former MGP sites are notorious for the legacy contamination left over from decades of dirty operations. Where these sites have not been cleaned up, one can expect to find coal tar and cancer-causing volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds.
Greenville had two MGP operations in the early 1900s—one on Broad Street, across from what is now Northampton Wine, and the other on the corner of Bramlett Road and West Washington Street in Greenville’s Southernside community. The condition of these two sites today tells a story of environmental inequity and of how the natural environment of all Greenvillians is not created equal.
Cleanup of the Broad Street MGP started in 1995. Duke Power, which operated the MGP, 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 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.
Every day, residents and visitors walk, run and bike along our renowned Swamp Rabbit Trail, unknowingly passing within the shadow of the old MGP site, past acres of wetlands contaminated with its coal tar, and eventually overtop the ditch where contamination from the site still flows under the trail and into the Reedy River. Any toxins that have left this site over the past 100 years flow through downtown and over Reedy Falls, leaving fingerprints downstream at Lake Conestee.
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 understanding of environmental justice has expanded, environmental fairness in this country has undoubtedly improved. Nevertheless, many communities are still plagued by the environmental sins of the past.
This is certainly true here in Greenville, where Southernside and other historically African-American or low-income communities are still trying to recover from bearing the brunt of Greenville’s polluting industrial past for a century. More than just acknowledgement, this unfortunate legacy deserves our focused attention and deliberate action.
This Tuesday, Oct. 29, I am joining other environmental, faith, and community leaders in a conversation intended to drive action on the Bramlett MGP site and other historic environmental inequities in the Greenville area.
We hope that our program, entitled “Environmental Equity — A World of Possibilities,” will be a catalyst for bringing environmental justice to the forefront in Greenville and the Upstate. The public is invited and encouraged to join us from 6-8 p.m. at Mountain View Baptist Church in Greenville to learn more about the Bramlett site and Southernside, to engage with a panel of experts on the topic of environmental justice, and to interact with local organizations and businesses that can provide actionable information on how to help. Go to villageengage.org to reserve your seat at this free community event.