Lake Conestee Nature Park has been awarded a 2017 Phoenix Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for excellence in brownfield redevelopment.
The award was created in 1997 to honor individuals and groups who are working to solve the critical environmental challenge of transforming blighted and contaminated areas into productive new uses, according to a press release.
Phoenix Award winners represent projects from each of the 10 EPA regions, as well as projects that have a special community impact. Lake Conestee Nature Park was chosen as the winner for Region 4, which includes the Southeastern states of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
The winning projects were honored last month during a ceremony at the National Brownfields Training Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers also named the winner of the national Phoenix Award. Lake Conestee Nature Park was named first runner-up.
“The recognition that we’ve achieved with these awards is unprecedented, because a nonprofit has never pulled off something like this,” said Dave Hargett, executive director of the Conestee Foundation. “We took an extremely blighted property that nobody wanted and transformed it into a community asset.”
Lake Conestee is one of 450,000 areas in the country classified as a brownfield site by the EPA, meaning redevelopment or reuse is “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
Hargett said the lake, which is located along the Reedy River near Mauldin, holds more than 2 million tons of sediment that’s been polluted with heavy metals like arsenic, pesticides, and cancer-causing chemical compounds.
The toxins are thought to have been discharged from the textile mills, coal plants, and dyeing operations that were once located along the Reedy River.
In 1998, Hargett and other conservationists launched the Conestee Foundation to acquire and rehabilitate Lake Conestee into a public green space.
Using proceeds from the settlement of the Colonial Pipeline oil spill in 1996, the foundation purchased the lake and its dam in 2000. It also signed a “voluntary cleanup contract” with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to improve the area.
Today, Lake Conestee Nature Park boasts 402 acres of open space, 12 miles of trails and boardwalks, and 207 species of birds. About 100,000 people visit the park on a yearly basis to watch birds, run, and enjoy other outdoor activities, according to Hargett.
The park has also become a venue for environmental education.
More than 3,000 students visit the park every year to learn about nature via “learning stations” that are spread throughout the area. Students from Furman and Clemson universities also use the park to conduct studies in topics such as environmental toxicology.