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Is pollution poisoning Charleston's African-American and low-income communities?

Toxic Environment



Nancy Button says you can't fight progress.

But that hasn't stopped her from trying.

In 2009, the 63-year-old president of the Rosemont Neighborhood Association was part of an environmental justice complaint filed with the United States Department of Justice opposing plans for the construction of a port access road from Interstate 26, arguing that the neighborhood's voice had not been heard during the discussion of the expansion. For Button and members of the small, aging community located toward the northern part of the Charleston peninsula, this latest project was a harsh reminder of when the construction of I-26 split Rosemont in two in the 1960s.

"The Rosemont neighborhood is comprised of African-American citizens who have lived in the community for generations, oftentimes inheriting their homes from parents and/or grandparents," said the official complaint. "This neighborhood is tightly knit and has dealt with an abundance of toxic neighbors, including polluting industry and the placement of I-26."

In the suit, Rosemont's attorney chronicled the Neck area's long history of industrial concerns dating back to the late 19th century when Charleston was a national hub for the production of phosphate fertilizer. These plants left behind toxic levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury in the soil and tainted the groundwater.

In 1991, the Neck was home to what the state Labor Department described as the worst industrial accident South Carolina had experienced. An explosion at the Albright and Wilson plant left nine dead, 33 injured, and released a large chemical cloud into the air. The accident was said to have occurred when a reactor used to produce flame retardant burst as the result of too much pressure. Ten years later at that same site, another industrial accident sent 10 people to the hospital when 30 gallons of phosphate trichloride were spilled, releasing a cloud of hydrochloric acid.

In 1994, the site of the former Koppers Inc. plant located just south of Rosemont was listed as a national priority by the EPA due to the contamination of soil and groundwater. From 1940-1978, Koppers used chemical preservatives such as creosote to treat raw lumber at the plant. Covering more than 100 acres, the area underwent an extensive cleanup effort. According to the EPA, the site is still being monitored, and the agency's most recent review of the area found that "additional information is needed to address the potential for vapors entering indoor air from the subsurface."

In addition to the area's history of industrial accidents, the Rosemont Homeowners Association suit also stated that by 2025 the proposed port terminal on the former Navy base in North Charleston would generate an estimated 10,920 automobile trips per day during peak hours, with the greatest percentage of port-related traffic occurring at the new I-26 interchange in Rosemont. Approximately 63 percent of these trips would be made by trucks. Arguing that the immediate proximity of the access road, scheduled for completion by 2020, posed high levels of environmental hazards, Button says the neighborhood asked for $3.9 million in program funding and trusts in the 2009 suit. They ultimately received $500,000 and a sound wall. But while Rosemont's legal battles may be behind them, the potential threat of pollution still weighs heavily on the minds of its residents.

According to the community cancer assessment from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, cancer is a major threat for those living in the 29405 ZIP code, which includes Rosemont and a portion of North Charleston. Looking at the most recent data from 2008-2012, the number of new cancer cases in this area, as well as the number of cancer deaths, were significantly higher than expected over that period. The number of new cancer cases was almost 12 percent higher than what was predicted to occur by chance alone based on state rates, and cancer deaths were 16 percent higher than expected. Deaths occurring from lung cancer were also reported as being more common, surpassing the expected total by 44 percent.

"Most of the people back here die from some form of cancer. When you breathe those fine, black particulate matters into your system over a period of time, we're breathing in all this air and stuff. ... We've got the railroad and the interstate, I-26, and then we're going to have that ramp," Button says. "We just grin and bear and take it one day at a time. There's something strange in the air that you can smell. It's not the usual odor that you smell in the air. It doesn't smell right. We're concerned about the health of the people in the community. I'm very concerned about once that ramp comes through here, but what can you do? What can we do?"

A Disparity

There are some local neighborhoods that bear the burden of industry more than others — especially here in the Lowcountry. Researchers looking at communities throughout the metropolitan area have found that the presence of environmental hazards is higher in parts of town with greater numbers of non-white and low-income residents.

"Some communities — communities of color, low-income communities, populations that may have been disenfranchised, marginalized — they are invisible, in some ways similar to what you've seen with Flint, Mich.," says Dr. Sacoby Wilson, assistant professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland. "Flint is getting a lot of national attention. People are talking about environmental justice and environmental racism. It's basically about how those communities have been differentially burdened by environmental hazards. Traditionally, when we talk about environmental justice, we're talking about any type of pollution-intensive facility or pollution-intensive activity. It could be traffic, factories, landfills, incinerators, leaking underground storage tanks. What happens is these communities end up having a higher proportion of those hazards or land uses compared to other communities."

Wilson and his fellow researchers have extensively studied environmental justice issues throughout Charleston and North Charleston, and what they've uncovered is a lingering disparity between neighborhoods in the area.

Through this work, researchers discovered that there are higher estimated cancer risks from exposure to air toxins in areas of economic deprivation across the Charleston metropolitan area, as well as an abundance of environmental risks in predominantly non-white and low-income neighborhoods.

Skip Mikell is fighting for more green space in North Charleston - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Skip Mikell is fighting for more green space in North Charleston

According to one study, most of the air emissions-related cancer risk in the area was attributable to on-road sources — vehicles traveling on roads and highways ­— when the risk from background sources, such as natural sources of air toxins, previous year's emissions, and toxins from distant sources, is not counted. In the Charleston metro, areas of higher estimated lifetime cancer risk were concentrated around the intersection of I-26 and I-526, stretching through the neck of the peninsula from the Bridgeview community, through Rosemont, Chicora-Cherokee, and Park Circle.

The report suggests that the high number of automobile travel and limited mass transit infrastructure in the area may contribute to these results, adding, "These findings may also be due to traffic associated with the Port of Charleston, one of the top 10 busiest ports in the U.S., and other port-related business. With ongoing port expansion, the cumulative burden of these on-road sources may continue to increase lifetime cancer risk as diesel emissions and related pollutants (i.e., particulate matter and black carbon) also increase."

According to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, there are currently 150 confirmed active releases — or leaks — from underground storage tanks (UST) in the tri-county area, half of which are in Charleston County. Commonly used to store petroleum products like gasoline and oil, these leaking tanks potentially impact the environment in far-reaching ways.

DHEC, whose UST Management Division oversees the inspection and cleanup of these sites, says that chemicals from leaking tanks may seep into the soil and contaminate groundwater, making water unsafe or unpleasant to drink. The 2014 annual report from the State Underground Petroleum Environmental Response Bank Advisory Committee states that approximately 26 percent of the more than 3,700 UST facilities inspected that year did not meet release prevention and release detection requirements.

In a study from 2012, researchers from the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health in cooperation with the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities (LAMC) — which advocates environmental justice issues in seven North Charleston neighborhoods — found a total of 656 leaking UST sites in Charleston County. Again, researchers discovered that the majority of these sites were clustered along the same portion of I-26, extending south along the peninsula from I-526. Examining the demographics of communities nearest to these sites, it was discovered that as the percentage of African-Americans and non-whites increased, so too did the number of leaking UST sites. The same correlation was found between the prevalence of leaking storage tanks and the percentage of those living in poverty. Communities with a population made up of more than 58 percent non-white residents contained almost twice the number of leaking UST sites than areas with a non-white population of less than 18 percent.

"It's really important to know where these previous land uses are, where you have the tanks for example, so the local population can know if they're near a tank and the risk of possible exposure and health effects," says Wilson. "When it comes to revitalizing those communities and helping them become more sustainable, it's important that those locations are cleaned up, so they can be reused and become a benefit to the community."

An inventory of tanks in the Charleston area (Source: DHEC via CCRAB)

In another study from 2012 published in the American Journal of Public Health, Wilson took a look at the distribution of toxic release inventory (TRI) facilities in the Charleston area and found another link to low-income areas and communities of color.

The EPA requires all facilities that use or process large amounts of specific toxic chemicals to report their releases. Examining data from 2008, it was revealed that although the Charleston metro area housed only 12.4 percent of the state's TRI facilities, these local producers were responsible for more than 26 percent of the amount of chemicals released throughout South Carolina, which equals 17 million pounds of possible contaminants.

Once again, it was found that populations living in closer proximity to these facilities — which again clustered along I-26, near the I-526 intersection — had higher portions of African-American and low-income residents. Communities with a buffer of around 0.5 miles were 52 percent non-white, as compared to neighborhoods at the five-mile mark which were at 36 percent. In addition to the issue of proximity to potential hazards, past research has also found a dramatic difference in the number of white and African-American children in need of medical assistance for breathing problems.

A study that tracked the number of children, ages 18 and under, who received medical treatment for asthma at MUSC from 1956-1997 found a shocking rise in the amount of African-American children seeking care. Over a 30-year period beginning in the '70s, a 20-fold increase occurred among hospital discharges for African-American children with asthma — four times the amount seen in white children over that same time.

MUSC asthma discharges for children 0 to 18 years old, 1956 to 1997, by ethnicity. - SOURCE: PEDIATRICS VOL. 108 NO. 6 DEC. 2001
  • Source: Pediatrics Vol. 108 No. 6 Dec. 2001
  • MUSC asthma discharges for children 0 to 18 years old, 1956 to 1997, by ethnicity.

While these numbers are dramatic, Dr. Wilson says more research is required before we can truly understand the environmental impact to local communities.

"We haven't gotten to the point yet where we can show that there is a strong association between some of the pollution emissions from the different facilities and negative health outcomes," says Wilson. "When you talk to LAMC and members of the community, there are concerns about asthma, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and things of that nature. We've been trying to get funding to do an epidemiological study to look at air-pollution levels ... and ultra-fine particles, which are known to cause negative impacts on lung functioning and cause asthma, asthma attacks, and cancer, but those grants have not been funded yet."

A Neighborhood Response

"Communities that have been disenfranchised for socioeconomic reasons over the years are now impacted heavily with environmental issues," says Herb Fraser-Rahim with LAMC. "We're not focusing necessarily on any one particular industry. It's the cumulative impact. When you breathe the air, you're not just breathing something coming from one particular source. It's the cumulative impact."

Organized in 2005, LAMC has worked with the University of South Carolina, MUSC, DHEC, and other state and local organizations to better understand the environmental issues facing the Charleston metropolitan community. In the past, the organization and its offshoot, the Charleston Community Research to Action Board (CCRAB), have supported North Charleston residents and citizens in the surrounding areas in negotiating mitigation plans for the port expansion, as well as zoning issues throughout the community.

Located along the Ashley River, the old Baker Hospital site is the former location of a phosphate mining and chemical plant operation that underwent a dramatic cleanup process to remedy arsenic and lead contamination in the soil. Numerous projects were proposed for the property in recent years, but after a strong outcry from the neighboring community, the site is now on track to provide much-needed green space for the area.

"I guess the greatest impact we can measure most recently is the old Baker Hospital. The efforts of LAMC and CCRAB and members of the community had the necessary impact that rather than that become an industrial site, it is now going to become a county park," says Skip Mikell, president of the Union Heights Community Council and CCRAB chairman. "It's going to be green space. It's going to be an environment that improves a community rather than an environment that will be detrimental to the community."

Omar Muhammad is the current president of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Omar Muhammad is the current president of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities

Another major environmental concern for residents in North Charleston was the county's former garbage incinerator that operated off Spruill Avenue. The site once burned between 70-80 percent of the county's household waste. Those living nearby spent every day dealing with the nasty byproducts of the plant.

"I had one young lady come to me after a meeting, and she said, 'At a particular time of the day, the air feels like it's thick.' When she breathes, she says it feels thick to her," says Omar Muhammad, LAMC president and the community project coordinator for CCRAB. "I heard another comment from a lady saying our environment is killing us. We had comments coming from people when the incinerator was operating that they would come outside in the morning and their car would be covered in ash. So it was the quality of life that was being impacted for individuals."

Muhammad's claims are supported by comments made during a public meeting held by Charleston County Council in 2008 to discuss the incinerator's impact on the surrounding neighborhood. In a City Paper article discussing the meeting, Tony Levine, former president of the Chicora-Cherokee Neighborhood Council, is quoted as saying that the south side of North Charleston has historically been an "industrial dumping ground." Another resident of Chicora-Cherokee who lived adjacent to the plant said she no longer opened the windows of her home and spent every morning hosing the dust from her car.

"The incinerator was an issue to the community. There were people in the community that lived next to it, adjacent to it, who were saying, 'No, we don't want it.' ... They were not exceeding the environmental rules, but what they were doing is having a cumulative impact on the quality of life of the community," says Rahim-Fraser. "A lot of times, you can't just say, 'Well, they're not exceeding this particular standard.' They may not be exceeding the standard, but there is an impact on the community on things that are not included in the standard. It gets to be a squirrely thing."

In order to better understand the potential environmental risks affecting communities in North Charleston and along the Neck, LAMC is planning to work with MUSC and the University of Maryland on separate projects to conduct community-based health assessments to target healthcare gaps and conditions in specific neighborhoods. Organizers hope to use this data as leverage for a health impact assessment as part of the environmental impact study for the port's new intermodal facility.

As an extension of their EJ Radar program, an online mapping tool that charts environmental factors affecting local neighborhoods, Muhammad intends to develop a mobile application that can alert users to harsh conditions such as poor air quality.

In addition to a study of zoning practices in North Charleston, LAMC is also applying for a grant to purchase personal air monitors that will assess the indoor and outdoor environments of those wearing the devices. Each of these projects is part of the volunteer organization's efforts to provide useful scientific data to the community in order to better understand their surroundings and manage development in their neighborhoods.

"All the data that we collect is to help the community to shape policy and drive policy. We empower them by providing them data and allowing them to map their area and take that map to their representatives and say, 'This is what is impacting me on a personal level,'" says Muhammad. "The important part about environmental justice is that it mandates that the community is meaningfully involved in decision-making that impacts them. Meaningful means different things for different people. Meaningful for us means that we are at the table at the beginning, at the middle, and at the end of the process. Permitting, zoning, those decisions that are going to adversely impact our communities."

As a member of the Union Heights Community Council, Skip Mikell says that he and his neighbors are fighting for a quality of life that other communities take for granted. And while the recent focus has been on environmental factors faced by local residents, he believes there is more at stake for all communities and the resources they share.

"It has to do with more than the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil that surrounds us. It's the envelope that we find ourselves in — community, housing, industry, all of those things that surround us and how they impact us," Mikell says. "Since everyone has the right to live in a clean environment, it is our mission first and foremost to make sure everyone knows they have that right, that people know whether or not they live in one of those communities, and finally, we act with them and for them as a resource to make sure they maintain those rights."

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