Southernside residents fear impacts of coal tar

A gas plant is still polluting Greenville’s Southernside community nearly 70 years after shutting down. Now residents want the toxins gone.

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By Andrew Moore and Cindy Landrum

Photo of Cordell Lomax by Will Crooks

Cordell Lomax knew his way around the bottoms behind what is now Legacy Charter Elementary School and just how far he could go before he encountered coal tar that came from the manufactured gas plant at East Bramlette Road and West Washington Street.

“That was my playground,” said Lomax, now 79.

But sometimes as he ran and played, he ventured too far — the proof, a black goo that wouldn’t come off his shoes or clothes, and earned him a whoopin’ when he got back home.

The manufactured gas plant transformed coal into gas for heating and lighting Greenville’s homes and businesses. This process produced coal tar, a thick black liquid that contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including carcinogens such as benzene.

The gas plant closed in 1952 and was mostly demolished six years later, but during its 35 years of operation, it released coal tar-containing wastewater into a network of drainage ditches and eventually contaminated a former landfill site on an adjoining property, according to public documents.

Southernside community leaders and environmental justice advocates are pushing for Duke Energy — and state regulators — to move more aggressively to clean up the lingering pollutants from the plant that ceased operation six decades ago, and in a way that doesn’t pose a risk to the environment or the community’s redevelopment.

Photo of Mary Duckett by Will Crooks

“It is imperative that it be cleaned up,” said Mary Duckett, a longtime Southernside resident and president of Southernside Neighborhoods in Action.

Duke, which was the plant’s primary owner and operator, is working with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the property’s current owner, CSX Transportation Inc., to investigate and remediate the contamination, according to Ryan Mosier, spokesman for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based utility.

Mosier said Duke has spent $6.7 million on the properties since the early 1990s.

“We’re closely managing the whole process through repeated monitoring, routine water testing, and coordination with DHEC,” Mosier wrote in an email to the Greenville Journal. “We hope the substantial investments we’re making at the site to ensure the public’s continued well-being demonstrate this commitment.”

State health officials say the contaminants pose no threat to public health or water supplies.

Photo of Michael Corley by Will Crooks

Michael Corley, an attorney for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, called the site “a decades-long insult” to the predominantly low-income, African-American community in which it is located.

“I think almost everything about the way that this site has been managed can be attributed to the nature of the neighborhood where it is located,” Corley said. “This site is the epitome of an environmental justice issue, from the fact that it has persisted for so long, to the fact that it is even now unlabeled and unmaintained. Without question, this wouldn’t be the case in a more affluent community.”

Dumping ground

Southernside has historically been Greenville’s dumping ground, both figuratively and literally.

Photo of Rev. Stacey Mills by Will Crooks

“That’s no secret to anybody who has lived in this community,” said the Rev. Stacey Mills, pastor at Mountain View Baptist Church, a 111-year-old congregation on Cagle Street in what is known as Newtown.

Hundreds of families, mostly domestic and blue-collar workers, once lived in quadraplexes, duplexes, and shantylike houses.

“These are the people who took care of the wealthy in our community, but they lived in conditions where not only did you have contamination from the gas plant, you had coal from the train, soot from the refuse facilities,” he said. “This was the last stop on the line and it is literally on the other side of the tracks.”

Women who lived there knew when to hang laundry out on the line to dry so their clean clothes wouldn’t get covered in black soot, he said. The nearby Reedy River served as the textile industry’s sewer, sometimes changing color depending on which dye was used that day.

“My swimming pool was the Reedy River. My playground was that tar,” Lomax said. “Do I feel dumped on? Yeah, I feel dumped on. But we had no money. If you got no money, you still get dumped on.”

A better tomorrow    

But there’s a renewed hope in Southernside thanks to the efforts of community leaders and plans for Unity Park, the city’s new multimillion-dollar park west of downtown that borders Southernside and West Greenville.

Mountain View Baptist, which has been buying up property around it for two decades, is in the process of developing a master plan that includes affordable housing, a child development center, a fresh market, and a fitness facility that could benefit from people who visit the park and the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail, Mills said.

“The church has always been a central part of the uplift of the people in the community,” he said. “At the heart of it, Mountain View’s vision provides economic development and affordable healthy living options not afforded to lower- and moderate-income neighborhoods in the Southernside community.

Mills said the church supports Duckett’s efforts to get the coal tar cleaned up.

Carcinogen cleanup 

Early site investigations conducted at the former gas plant site found soil and groundwater contamination in the form of elevated concentrations of volatile organic compounds, semivolatile organic compounds, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and metals, some of which are known to cause cancer, records show.

Between 2001 and 2002, Duke Energy excavated about 61,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris at the former gas plant, according to Mosier. About half of that material was treated and then returned to the site, while the remaining excavated areas were backfilled with 38,000 tons of clean soil from off-site sources.

Corley, however, said Duke Energy performed only a “limited cleanup” of the site, ignoring contaminated groundwater and leaving toxic chemicals in the soil.

“While a great deal of coal tar was removed, this cleanup didn’t even have the purpose of removing it all. It was meant only to eliminate any immediate threat to human health,” Corley said. “The depth of the excavation was limited and even within the limited footprint, liquid coal sludge was left in the ground.”

A previous site report by Duke said groundwater remediation at the former gas plant site would be “counterproductive” as the water would become recontaminated upon migrating into the adjoining property. It also acknowledges remaining contamination in the site’s soil. The contaminants, however, are reportedly buried 3 feet deep and don’t pose a health risk to the surrounding community.

Work in progress

Mosier said Duke Energy’s assessment and remediation of the former gas plant is “largely complete,” with only one of the site’s nine permanent groundwater monitoring wells exceeding regulatory criteria.

Duke Energy is now expanding its efforts to sample and plan for any work needed at the former landfill, according to Mosier.

The unpermitted landfill was developed by a local contractor in 1988 but closed by CSX several years later after state and federal regulators discovered it was located within a wetlands system and in violation of the Clean Water Act.

In 1994, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DHEC requested that CSX conduct an environmental assessment of the landfill site. The assessment revealed tarlike substances and high concentrations of lead in the groundwater beneath the former landfill and surrounding wetlands system.

In a statement, the company said, “CSX is committed to protecting public health and safeguarding the environment in communities where we operate. CSX is cooperating with Duke Energy so that it can respond to environmental conditions associated with a former manufactured gas plant.”

Don Siron, assistant bureau chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Land and Waste Management, said assessment and remediation efforts along Bramlette Road are ongoing but that groundwater contamination trends have been either stable or decreasing at both properties since sampling began in 1999.

He added that some groundwater contaminants exceed water-quality standards, but most aren’t at levels high enough to pose a direct health risk.

“The contamination at this property is not at the surface, so direct exposure is unlikely, multiple well surveys show there are no drinking-water wells within a half-mile of the site, and no homes exist on the properties, making vapor intrusion a nonissue,” Siron said.

Testing the water

Duke Energy operates 25 groundwater monitoring wells across the former gas plant site and adjoining property in order to record contamination levels, according to Mosier. The results are submitted to DHEC on a quarterly basis as part of a voluntary cleanup contract the company signed in 2016.

Corley said he appreciates Duke Energy’s willingness to voluntarily explore cleanup options, but he maintains that the company’s current monitoring program isn’t sufficient to determine whether groundwater contamination is being discharged from the wetlands into the Reedy River, a waterway that’s historically struggled with industrial contamination.

“The sampling wells on site are not adequate to establish where the contamination is and where it is moving,” Corley said. “Assumptions have been made as to the direction and distance of contamination migration, and some of them are concerning. This is especially true considering that at least 50 years passed between the time contamination was released and when the first assessment was made. In any direction you could point from the original contamination source, questions remain.”

Previous site assessments found that contaminants in the former landfill and wetlands are mostly nonmobile and have no impact on plants or animals.

An elevated rail line and embankment create a barrier between the wetlands and nearby Reedy River, but a manmade canal near the property directs overflow water into the river during periods of heavy rainfall. Records show CSX tested surface water samples from the canal during early site assessments but detected no contamination.

Duke also recently tested groundwater, surface water, and sediment samples from along the Reedy River and detected no elevated concentrations of contaminants, according to Siron.

“If newly collected data were to suggest conditions that could pose a threat to public health or the surrounding environment, DHEC would immediately take protective measures,” he said.

Growing concern

Mayor Knox White said any environmental hazard that affects or could affect the Reedy River is a concern to the city.

He said improving the river’s health is one of the city’s top priorities in Unity Park. The plan is to create a more natural course for the river, which was straightened in the 1930s, by sculpting the bank. By doing so, floodwater will spread out and slow down. Riparian vegetation would serve as a natural filter, improving the quality of the water of the Reedy.

“It’s the next step in reclaiming the river,” White said.

The river work is included in the first phase of Unity Park, estimated to cost nearly $41.2 million.

See something, do nothing?  

As part of its ongoing assessment of the Bramlette site, Duke Energy is installing seven additional monitoring wells near the former landfill to better determine the source, nature, and extent of groundwater contamination, according to Mosier.

Mosier said Duke Energy would consider additional site assessments and remediation efforts once the current investigation has concluded.

Corley said he’s troubled that Duke, or its consultants, have been laying the groundwork for years to reach a conclusion that no cleanup is required, even before the site has been adequately tested.

“Almost every document submitted to DHEC by Duke includes broad, unsupported statements implying or expressing that natural attenuation is the answer,” he said.

Natural attenuation is a remediation strategy that would require Duke Energy to keep a watchful eye on the former landfill site but essentially do nothing, allowing the environment to naturally break down chemical pollution in the groundwater and soil. This strategy would likely take several years to decades to remediate the site, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many of Duke Energy’s previous site assessments suggest natural attenuation to be the preferred remediation strategy for the landfill site, because excavation of the affected soils and sediments would likely result in “severe damage” to the surrounding wetland environment and mobilization of contaminants.

Too early for answers

Corley, however, said there are still too many unknowns about the property for the company to even consider potential cleanup strategies.

“We do not know whether this site is actively discharging into the Reedy River, or to what extent, and we don’t know what parts of the site contain liquid coal sludge. Yet natural attenuation is regularly suggested,” Corley said. “Our focus now is on effective participation in the cleanup planning process, so that the eventual outcome is one that wouldn’t lead to contemplation of legal action.”

He added that public involvement is “critical” going forward, because the voluntary cleanup contract between the state and Duke Energy allows the company to “set the terms for what testing is to occur and where, and in most cases, the state only steps in when a significant failure is apparent.”

“Under the circumstances, accountability and attention are vital,” Corley said.

Siron said a voluntary cleanup contract is DHEC’s “preferred procedure” for managing sites like those along Bramlette Road.

The agency held its last public meeting regarding both properties in 2016, with staff discussing the history and status of the contamination and what work would be conducted under the voluntary cleanup contract.

“DHEC will have more community involvement upon completion of the assessment and before a remedy for the site is selected,” Siron said.

Duckett said she knows what her community wants — for the coal tar to be cleaned up. “My generation had no idea of the danger the environment had on us,” she said. “We don’t want that no more. We want the generation that grows up in the redeveloped Southernside to grow up in a neighborhood that has a good quality of life and is safe and healthy.”

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