June 2003 Contents

Message From the Executive Director:

Articles:

Upstate Conservation:

Upstate Forever News:

 

 

The ReGenesis Project
How One Man Is Bringing A Community Back To Life In Spartanburg

Q: I understand you grew up in the Arkwright community. Could you describe what it looked like, smelled like, felt like then?

Harold Mitchell, Executive Director of ReGenesis, sat down with Upstate Forever volunteer Lynne Lucas to answer some questions about his unexpected, fascinating and ultimately personal journey that is bringing the Arkwright-Forest Park community in Spartanburg back to life.
 

Mitchell: At that particular time growing up, it didn’t seem like a problem. It seemed like the norm. My mom wouldn’t let me (play) outside of the yard, so I grew up around a lot of older adults and people from the facility (IMC fertilizer plant) who used to come over and sit on our steps and talk. I talked to a lot of the truck drivers, and the guys that drove the tractors and bulldozers, which I thought was pretty cool at the time. The smells were kind of like — you know the bus fumes you smell now? — it was kind of like that. It was the acidy type odor that we basically had gotten used to. Everyone (was) walking around looking like they’d just been dumped in flour (from the fertilizer dust.)

Q: At what point did it seep in that perhaps this was unhealthy?

Some Basic Facts About the Arkwright and Forest Park Community

  • Less than one mile from downtown Spartanburg
  • 96% African-American population
  • 40-acre site of abandoned (and now deconstructed) fertilizer plant
  • 30-acre former city landfill
  • Operating chemical plant on 35-acre site
  • 200 residents live within 1/4 mile of landfill
  • 1,400 residents are members of ReGenesis
     

Mitchell: The facility was shut down around 1986. In the ’90s, there were a lot of problems of theft and drug use, a lot of drug activity at the facility because it was abandoned, a dead-end road. There was a guy who raped four elderly women in the community; he was (thought to be) hanging out there. It was just a nuisance regarding snakes as well. That’s when we approached the county first and then DHEC, and that’s when I found the documentation. I looked through the files and that’s when I saw “hazardous,” “toxic.” And I was like, wait a minute. I had no idea that there was anything there that could have been of harm. For about 8 or 9 months I had an illness that was never diagnosed. They didn’t know whether it was prostate, kidney or colon cancer, but nothing they could ever put their finger on. I couldn’t eat, always nauseous, passing blood, my whole left side was swollen and very tender, I couldn’t lay on my back, definitely couldn’t lay on that side. It was just constant pain. It was a lot of passing blood.

Q: Did the symptoms just dissipate?
Mitchell: It basically just went away. (Then) my dad began talking about having the same problems. I thought he was just kidding. He went in and went through almost the same series of tests. They ended up finding it was lymphoma cancer. It knocked him out in about 6 months. (Mitchell’s father died in 1997.) And after that, because we had gotten a lot of the documentation before he was diagnosed, and during that time, was when basically I looked at my sister’s death certificate, which I’d always had a question and doubt about. They never could answer what was the cause of death. I took the death certificate to a coroner outside of Spartanburg and asked him what was the cause of death. And he said ... it was germ poisoning. That’s when I went back and looked at the files, talked to a clearinghouse in Durham at Duke and looked at the sulphuric acid and some of the others on the TRI, Toxic Release Inventory, and basically looked at the different chemicals that were being used and released at that time. Our house was right in front of where they unloaded the sulphur. I looked at the inventory and that’s when I saw the short-term and long-term health effects on women who were pregnant. My sister lived only a couple of hours because there was difficulty breathing. After that I looked at my mother’s sister whose daughter died the exact same way (both in the ’60s). She lived about a week or so, but it was the same thing. They lived there in the same house. Going through the files was kind of like a little snapshot of remembering things that were said. And things just started connecting.

In the early to mid-’90s, when battling his illness and with his curiosity aroused, Mitchell tried to get jobs that would allow him to go to conferences and workshops about environmental justice. He began researching, collecting data, and calling public officials and environmental professionals. When the sample collection at the site didn’t satisfy Mitchell’s concerns, he kept contacting environmental waste professionals that he’d met at workshops. Finally, at Sen. Fritz Hollings’ request, EPA conducted an investigation of the site.

Mitchell: And they went forward with a site investigation to find out that there were 70 contaminants. That 30 were 3 times above the maximum contamination level. So that’s when everything really started. That was in 1998.

Q: When did you form ReGenesis?


Over 100 partners are now involved in the project to date, meeting to share ideas and develop plans. Government and private foundation grants totalling nearly $1.7 million have been awarded to the project.

Mitchell: In ’98. At the end of ’97, I pulled everybody together in the community and kind of went through a couple things. At that point, a lot of the residents didn’t know that their neighbor was suffering from the same thing that they were going through. It raised the attention. It was like “What is going on?” And that’s when I started talking about what we had found there and that EPA was getting ready to start looking at the facility. It was not a panic, but everybody became concerned. They said they had never thought about it, how many people had died of the exact same things. I just started going down the list of some of the people that I had talked to. By the time I got through, (I found) over 60 miscarriages and stillborns in the neighborhood since the ’60s, most of them in the ’80s and ’90s.

Q: How would you explain the concept of environmental justice and how do you think this project addresses that?
Mitchell: I’m on the national Environmental Justice Advisory Council for EPA. As of last year, there wasn’t a clear definition of environmental justice... (But studies have shown that) the majority of your hazardous, toxic chemical fatalities are in low-income, minority communities. During public commenting periods when you’re siting a facility in a community like that, people with low income also have low (education and political influence.) The people themselves are not the types that are looking in the (legal) ads... and, they can’t get off work. (They have) little power, little political awareness, there’s not a voice there. And they’re poor, so as far as hiring an attorney to fight this, it just doesn’t happen. The way I look at it, since Sept. 11, there’s been a lot of concern about releases of different chemicals and the long-term effect. This is what the people in those communities (live with) daily. So in my mind, I look at it as industrial terrorism on some of those low-income communities. If you look at the majority of these sites that are located near these communities, there’s a high number of diseases related to what the facility actually uses and releases. It’s not that difficult to put the two together.

Q: When you first starting looking at this, first started noticing things wrong in the community, did you ever have any idea you’d be in this position now?
Mitchell: Not in my wildest dreams. When I was put on the national Environmental Justice Advisory Council, I saw some transformations across the country. But I didn’t realize at first how all the sites here were basically connected to each other from one roadway to another, until one of the superintendents told me: “You have a masterpiece of brownfields here.” Then, looking at it, I saw the bigger picture, and all the steps you have to take to get through that process. (Then came all) the partnerships that would have to be involved, the attitudes of the residents and different partners who usually don’t sit down at the table together, that we had to bring together for this. So that’s kind of the nerve-wracking part.

Q: What do you see as Upstate Forever’s role in this?

ReGenesis Project Goals

  1. Create a comprehensive redevelopment plan
  2. Clean up contaminated sites
  3. Provide for public safety, education and life skills
  4. Ensure public health
  5. Improve transportation access
  6. Create open space and trails
  7. Develop affordable and energy efficient housing.

Mitchell: To help us with the green space, the urban trails, and trying to preserve as much of the open-space greenery on the opposite side of Fairforest Creek. That side is where we want to keep it as natural and open between subdivisions as possible in the redevelopment. (Upstate Forever) can help us look at the possibilities with the flood plain; there’s like a natural valley there between the mountain and the textile mill property. We want to really keep that greenery in there.

Q: In this whole process, what have you learned about yourself?

The latest draft of the conceptual master plan for the Arkwright-Forest Park community.

Mitchell: How to work with different groups and attitudes in a positive, productive way. Persistence. Listening to different views and not just clamping down on one possibility. Keeping it open. That’s why we welcome anyone who can give us advice.

Q: What have you learned about the concept of community?
Mitchell: I think the biggest thing is keeping them informed, engaged in the process, allowing them to make the decisions that are basically going to affect them. The biggest thing is just keeping the residents at the table.

Q: How many years do you think this one will take before you’re done?
Mitchell: Once we gain site control and the redevelopment plan is completed, then we can look at an actual timeline of the projects themselves. We still have cleanup going on at the Arkwright dump site and the IMC property (and ongoing federal investigations at both sites.) Nothing can be built until they’re cleaned up. A lot of this right now is still in what I guess you’d call the clean-up stage, both environmentally and cosmetically with the houses and the drugs, and getting that out.

Upstate Forever member and
volunteer Lynne Lucas was a newspaper journalist for nearly 27 years (25 with The Greenville News) before starting volunteer work with Upstate Forever last summer. A lifelong environmentalist and a Master Gardener since 1992, she began her own landscape business last fall. WildEarth Landscaping embraces Lynne’s affection for native plants, small-scale design, and organic gardening practices.

Q: So you’re thinking 5 years?
Mitchell: I would give it that.

 

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