This case study blog was written by Dr. Marva King from interviewing former SC State Representative Harold Mitchell and former EPA Region 4 Atlanta EJ Director Cynthia Peurifoy.
The Early Days
The southside of Spartanburg, SC, is home to the neighborhoods of Arkwright, Forest Park and Mill Village. The residents of these neighborhoods are predominantly people of color or low-income and are situated amidst an operating chemical fertilizer manufacturing plant, two Superfund sites, and six Brownfield sites. Beginning in the 1970s, the proximity of the residential areas to these sites and the lack of environmental controls during and after facility closures reduced the value of area real estate and fostered a systemic deterioration of the community.
By the 1990s, as a result of these abandoned Superfund sites and unsafe facilities, the southside neighborhoods had been impacted socially, economically and environmentally. They struggled with illegal drug activity, unemployment, environmental hazards, squatter conditions, and homelessness. These conditions, in addition to heavy traffic, a lack of sidewalks, unsafe transportation situations, and a lack of public investment in the community, led homeowners to abandon their property and leave rental properties vacant.
Southside Spartanburg, SC is just one example out of thousands of communities across the U.S. struggling with similar concerns. What makes the story of this community different from others are the residents, leaders and partners who banded together to promote a structured process of collaborative problem solving to push their neighborhoods forward.
Southside Spartanburg Moves toward Healing Itself
In 1997, to build trust among the three neighborhoods, community residents came together and created one voice under the ReGenesis nonprofit collaborative. ReGenesis, under the leadership of community resident and former State Representative Harold Mitchell, began a visioning activity with these neighborhoods and local and federal partners to identify environmental problems and connect the dots between the different facilities and environmental public health concerns. One major discovery was that emissions from the fertilizer plant had resulted in similar health impacts in all three neighborhoods. ReGenesis was able to document that residents had similar medical concerns of a rare respiratory nature where the environmental conditions were eating out the cartilage of their nose. Other similar health conditions included pregnancy miscarriages and lung cancer.
As Southside Spartanburg began identifying environmental hazards and public health concerns, they trusted and empowered Rep. Mitchell to be their spokesperson. Mitchell brought the community’s concerns to the City Council, including the need to educate volunteer fire departments to fight chemical and environmental hazardous fires, and the need to understand the historical environmental concerns attributed to a local landfill and abandoned facilities. The communities and the local and state government banded together to respond to the hazardous conditions surrounding where residents lived.
Organizing and collaboration helped ReGenesis remove barriers. They increased their partnerships and began weekly meetings with the City and County Councils, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the SC state environmental agency, and others in order to collaborate and divide up tasks. The County became the grant administrator for all financial funding, and the federal EPA ensured everyone had an equal voice at the table. Most importantly, it was determined that it was time to increase the ReGenesis partnership with other sectors, such as media and philanthropy, who were not part of the earlier discussion and problem-solving.
Increased local media coverage of the neighborhoods’ environmental health problems kept the community concerns and progress at the front of citywide conversations. ReGenesis held partnership meetings to identify resources for rebuilding a livable, sustainable community and set out to secure those various sources of funding. The organization had a critical opportunity and advantage in seeking this additional support from a range of state and federal agencies because they had been named one of the first federal Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group demonstration projects in the late 90s.
For example, the Department of Justice’s weed and seed funding grant was obtained for cleaning up the drug traffic in the neighborhoods and helping make the community feel safer. Department of Energy funding was utilized for a charrette engaging the infrastructure of local businesses and grocery stores. On a local level, a County referendum passed to support emergency preparedness for catastrophic events, training fire department volunteers, medical emergencies for vulnerable populations, etc.
The original EPA Environmental Justice grant of $20,000 to ReGenesis in 1997 led to more than $270 million in public and private funding through partnerships with more than 120 organizations to transform the southside of Spartanburg over the next 17 years. The Ford Foundation, an important partner, helped create administrative, operational and organizational projects for ReGenesis. In the midst of this funding growth, ReGenesis received the EPA 2009 EJ Achievement Award for its long-term and still ongoing projects addressing environmental hazards, economic development, health care and housing.
The future for the Southside of Spartanburg
One reason for ReGenesis’s success in harnessing the collective power of its leaders, partners and communities was its process of creating written Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with all its members. The MOUs provided clear accountability with each partner, understanding of roles, and a strategic structure for resources coming into the project. This structure was transparent and trustworthy. Every partner was needed, supported and worked toward the development of the southside of Spartanburg.
As a result of this ongoing work, Spartanburg has seen these powerful results:
- Before the community mobilized under the ReGenesis partnership they had no health facilities in their neighborhoods and had to travel long distances for medical care. Currently the Southside Spartanburg community hosts nine ReGenesis health care, dental, and pharmacy sites, with a tenth health care center opening in January 2020. Their largest community health center has 15 exam rooms and over the last three years residents’ usage of the health center has increased.
- Residents no longer live in a food desert. ReGenesis identified and built a site for a grocery store. This was done with the help of the DOJ weed and seed funds to clean up neighborhood crime and through Brownfields funding for environmental improvements on the site.
- ReGenesis designed a Recreation Center that serves as a hub of activity for the community from the young to elderly residents. With the help of partners and DOE visioning charrette funds, they turned a sick building into a new green facility by using state tax credits and creative funding.
- More than 500 new affordable housing units for residents and workers led to the removal of severely distressed public housing and to new homeownership opportunities. ReGenesis provided job training of community members for subcontracting work (e.g., asbestos abatement, construction trades and masonry to build these new community homes). On the economic side, the partnership assisted community residents with improving their financial ability to obtain home loans.
- ReGenesis is establishing a 2-megawatt solar farm on a former Superfund landfill site that is calculated to provide cost-savings for over 25 years to community residents.
- The ReGenesis team is also working to install aquaponics, a system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. ReGenesis will also utilize this system to grow organic produce. Eventually, the partnership wants to connect aquaponics to their 2020 medical facility as it relates to improving the dietary health of the patients, especially for those with diabetes.
For the future, there are two major goals Southside Spartanburg is pursuing. These include a Arkwright Renewal/Energy STEM Campus built on former Superfund and Brownfields sites with a progressive design that includes a steel superstructure, solar panel array, green roof garden with rainwater storage tanks, wind farm and integrated site biofiltration systems. The second goal is to design an energy efficient and solar-powered golf course.
Southside Spartanburg and the ReGenesis partnership believe there is no stopping them now! And critically, they believe that these energy, solar, health and climate projects are crucial to protecting their most vulnerable citizens from future environmental health challenges, as the area faces storms, frost, and droughts made worse by climate change.
Suggested citation: King, Marva. “A Community Case Study to Replicate: Equity and Climate Justice in Spartanburg, SC” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. January 10, 2019.