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Skeo Solutions Sponsored Series

Introduction To Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice, Equitable Development and the Spartanburg Story

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Vibrant. Healthy. Secure. Discarded. Toxic. Trapped. Which words would you rather use to describe the community where you live, work or own a business? If the last three words were apt descriptors, how many years would you need to turn things around? And if reinvestment were successful, how many of your community’s original residents and businesses would still be there to benefit?

These questions are being answered in community development projects around the country. The most striking example is an effort lead by ReGenesis, a community-based environmental justice organization. ReGenesis partnered with public and private sector entities to transform the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Over a 15-year period, the ReGenesis Environmental Justice Partnership leveraged over $250 million on reinvestment and development opportunities that benefit existing residents and their business neighbors. So how did it happen? And how did local industry and businesses go from being adversaries to welcomed partners?

Equitable development

For many environmental justice neighborhoods, the impacts of cumulative pollution problems and the presence of vacant and contaminated properties are only two of a host of quality of life challenges for residents. These communities also suffer from disinvestment as jobs, businesses and wealth migrate away, leaving behind struggling schools, lack of access to healthy, affordable food, unemployment and underemployment, higher rates of crime, low property values and unhealthy housing conditions. Adding insult to injury, when market conditions change and outside reinvestment picks up again, rising property values and large scale development projects can displace long-term residents depriving them of the benefits of revitalization.

Equitable development is a planning approach that prioritizes and pursues development that benefits current residents and contributes to neighborhood resilience and quality of life. Like Spartanburg’s ReGenesis, many environmental justice groups are using toxic sites as a pivot point to tackle larger quality of life concerns in order to create sustainable and livable communities. Using tools that create affordable housing, improve health equity, create economic opportunity and attract amenities such as neighborhood-oriented commercial districts and green space, equitable development partnerships can produce economic benefits that extend beyond residents to local government and private sector partners as well.

The Spartanburg story

After years of disinvestment, the 1990s found the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods struggling. Urban renewal in the 1970s had decimated the community’s formerly vibrant commercial core of 70 black-owned businesses. Economic revitalization initiatives that were improving the downtown areas of Spartanburg had not reached these communities. The only road into the communities was frequently blocked by standing trains, isolating them from other areas of the city. In addition, many residents had health concerns which they suspected were related to the presence of two hazardous waste sites and an active chemical manufacturing plant. These suspicions created high levels of tension and mistrust between community members and their industrial neighbors: a municipal landfill, an abandoned fertilizer plant and an active chemical manufacturer. In addition to their health concerns, community residents also complained of noxious odors and waste pond overflow into residential areas.

In 1997, Harold Mitchell, a long-term community resident, founded ReGenesis. As efforts to assess and clean up contaminated sites began, ReGenesis represented neighborhood interests. Soon, the organization saw an opportunity to expand discussions with local government and environmental agencies to include equitable neighborhood revitalization. In 2000, the ReGenesis Environmental Justice Partnership was formed by representatives from ReGenesis, Spartanburg County, and the City of Spartanburg to promote equitable development for Arkwright and Forest Park.

Over the next decade, the Partnership worked with local residents to identify quality of life priorities for redevelopment and attracted millions of dollars for revitalization. Beginning with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency for site cleanup and redevelopment planning, the partnership has leveraged over $250 million dollars for neighborhood reinvestment. Achievements include:

In addition to these significant successes, the partnership organized the purchase of two properties that are pivotal to revitalization. Ownership of these key properties has helped bolster redevelopment plans, support and funding.

However, as forward momentum built in the community, the mistrust between community residents and local industry looked like it might keep entities like Rhodia, Inc. and Vigindustries from working with the Partnership. Rhodia, Inc. operates an active chemical manufacturing plant, which many community members initially felt was a land use that was incompatible with their plans for a revitalized and healthy community. Vigindustries is the owner of an inactive fertilizer plant property where contamination is currently being addressed directly adjacent to community residences.

Over several years, through formal and informal discussions, including a facilitated dialogue between Rhodia, Inc. and ReGenesis, the local community and industry have worked hard to find common ground and rebuild trust. The facilitated dialogue has been the catalyst for building trust and relationships between Rhodia, the impacted community and other local stakeholders. According to Mitchell, “When most industries call themselves a good neighbor, they are thinking primarily about being a neighbor in the business community. Rhodia is now focused on being a good neighbor to their fenceline community. They are investing in their fenceline community instead of investing in costly legal battles over environmental impacts.”

Today, most neighborhood residents have toured the Rhodia plant and Rhodia is partnering closely with the community through monthly meetings. Rhodia has completed beautification projects on their property to create a buffer between the plant and adjacent residences, offered job training programs to community residents, and hired residents to work at the plant. Additionally, Rhodia adjusted plant operations to address noxious odors, lower loudspeaker noise and lessen light pollution at night. Every year, Rhodia hosts a barbecue for community residents and supports the annual ReGenesis Health Center’s Back to School Health Fair, which serves over 3,800 kids. As a result of these efforts, Rhodia’s public image has improved greatly.

Rhodia and ReGenesis have also worked on several transportation-related projects that are mutually beneficial for the plant and neighborhood residents. Rhodia worked with ReGenesis to start discussions with CSX that have resulted in policy changes which restrict the amount of time trains block the entrance to the neighborhood. Additionally, the completion of a new access road has provided a vital second entrance to the community and ensures that emergency vehicles and personnel can reach residents and Rhodia’s chemical plant in a timely fashion when the primary entrance is blocked by a train.

The Partnership has also worked with Vigindustries to develop a land use plan for the former fertilizer plant site; plans include a public golf course and a solar farm. The Partnership already has a relationship with The First Tee, a junior golf program, and hopes to use the course to teach leadership skills to neighborhood children and make them competitive for golf-related college scholarships. The Partnership is also currently in discussion with the local energy company to identify opportunities to generate revenue from the solar farm that would benefit the adjacent neighborhoods.

As a result of the hard work and commitment of both ReGenesis and local industry, relationships that were once defined by open hostility have transformed into relationships of mutual respect and partnership. Rhodia, Inc. and Vigindustries are now integral partners in and beneficiaries of the restoration of the neighborhoods they call home.

This article highlights the important work between the ReGenesis Partnership and local industries, but this work could not have been as successful without the efforts of the many other partners, including local, state and federal agencies, foundations, technical support from a number of colleges and universities, and EPA and the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control. Later this summer, the ReGenesis Leveraging report will be released by the University of South Carolina, Upstate. This report will provide greater detail on the accomplishment of this effort as well as the holistic benefits that are now a reality.

Sarah Malpass is an Associate Planner at Skeo Solutions where she specializes in collaborative planning and design services in the areas of Superfund site reuse and area-wide brownfield revitalization. She has a special interest in facilitating collaborative problem solving processes that help environmental justice communities identify equitable development solutions and create a foundation for healthy, vibrant community life.

[image credit: Joe Plocki: Flickr cc]

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