Toxic waste site near Unity Park, Reedy River called a modern 'tale of two Greenvilles'
November 1st, 2019
By Eric Connor, The Greenville News
For generations, the Southernside community was laid to waste — whether it was well-documented cases like public works where junked police cars were dumped or when homes were left to fall apart in anticipation of an inner-city highway loop that never materialized.
Today, amid downtown Greenville's westward expansion of wealth and development opportunity, a movement is afoot to shine a light on another example — the toxic, tarred wasteland on Bramlett Road at the edge of the soon-to-come, $72 million Unity Park.
Environmentalists say the 11-acre site near the Norfolk Southern Railroad is likely still leaking cancer-causing materials into the Reedy River, right under the Swamp Rabbit Trail and upstream from Falls Park, from the remnants of toxic sludge created by a long-closed coal plant.
And they say that the plant's owner, Duke Energy, has spent 25 years delaying a proper clean-up — even as the company fully excavated a former plant site that operated on East Broad Street where the luxury apartment complex Ellison on Broad now rises over the Church Street bridge.
"It's a tale of two Greenvilles," said Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has battled Duke Energy over large-scale "coal ash" sites in the Carolinas and is launching a campaign to bring attention to what he said is "environmental injustice" at the Bramlett site.
The group, in concert with Southernside community leaders and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, hired an independent firm to analyze the site and is asking Duke to spend more resources on cleanup and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to exert more regulatory strength.
The firm found contamination levels well in excess of acceptable standards and said cleanup efforts should be more robust.
However, Duke spokesman Ryan Mosier said that while the energy company no longer owns either site, it has spent roughly the same amount of money to clean up both.
"We are committed to managing this project in a safe and responsible manner," Mosier said. "We’re closely managing the whole process through repeated monitoring, routine water testing and coordination with DHEC."
Where remediation heads next depends on the results of Duke's third phase of testing at the site, DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said.
"Each phase has built off the previous investigation to better understand the source, nature and extent of groundwater contamination at the site,." she said. "Following the current phase of work, DHEC will determine if the investigation is complete or if additional assessment is needed."
Southernside residents unknowingly waded in the toxic water The toxic waste is a legacy of "manufactured gas plants," which operated in the early half of the 20th century and were a predecessor to natural gas. The plants burned coal and left behind a tar substance that contains carcinogens among other hazards.
The first plant was on East Broad Street, where the luxury apartment complex Ellison on Broad stands now. In 1917, Southern Public Utilities developed a new plant at the intersection of Bramlett Road and West Washington Street in the historically black Southernside community.
Duke Power Company bought the plant in 1939 and closed it in 1951. The above-ground structures were torn down in the late 1950s.
However, the waste left behind continued to drain through ditches into the Reedy River.
Mary Duckett, the longtime leader of the community's neighborhood association and a driving force behind Unity Park, said residents would play in the water thinking it was an extension of the river.
They would emerge covered in a strange film, unaware of the hazard and surprised at how long it was allowed to go untold, Duckett said.
In 1994, inspectors discovered coal tar contamination when they were evaluating the illegal Vaughn Landfill that began to operate in 1988.
All the land, both the site of the landfill and the plant, is split into five parcels owned by CSX Transportation.
In 2002, Duke excavated 61,000 tons on the plant property and replaced with clean soil.
At issue today is just how effective that effort was and whether it matches the effort at the site of a luxury apartment complex.
Two sites cleaned, different results The two sites — Bramlett and Ellison on Broad — were handled in the same manner, Mosier said.
Duke spent about the same money — $4 million at Ellison, $7 million at Bramlett — to clean up the sites in cooperation with DHEC, he said.
The Ellison site was once an industrial area before downtown's transformation. The property, Mosier said, was a grassy, empty parcel of land because of the company's remediation efforts, and a developer came in decades after the 1995 cleanup to develop the apartment complex.
Beyond that, he said, "that's is where the similarities end."
However, Holleman said that Duke has made excuses not to act in an underprivileged neighborhood that only recently has begun to assert its voice.
The Ellison site was excavated to bedrock level, allowing it to become a truly clean site, Holleman said. The Bramlett site, on the other hand, was excavated only a few feet deep.
DHEC disagrees with the notion that the cleanup efforts have been a case of environmental injustice.
The two sites have different histories that play into how contamination has been handled, Renwick said.
Both properties "have been addressed fairly and similarly, however, the cleanup efforts for any MGP site will always be unique and specific to the current conditions and historical use of the individual site."
In the case of the Ellison site, Duke had direct control over the property during cleanup, and migration of contamination offsite was minimal, Renwick said.
At the Bramlett site, the property isn't within Duke's control, and contamination migrated into nearby wetlands and was further complicated by the landfill's operation, she said. The cleanup project was aided by a private developer, she said.
So far, testing has indicated that any contamination is below the surface, which makes direct exposure unlikely, and there are no signs that drinking wells exist within a half-mile of the site nor are there any homes near the property, Renwick said.
Testing has dragged out too long, consultant says The South Carolina Environmental Law Project's consultant, Aquilogic, issued a report that was shared this week in a public forum at a packed Mountain View Baptist Church near the Bramlett site.
In the report, the firm said that Duke's efforts haven't adequately addressed contamination in the ground and water.
The main drainage ditch into the Reedy River — where Southernside residents unwittingly waded — is still releasing contaminants farther away than where Duke says contamination is limited, said Michael Corley, an attorney who is the Upstate coordinator for the SCELP.
"Over the years, Duke Energy has employed many different environmental consultants who have proposed and undertaken various testing and have prepared dozens of lengthy reports," Corley said. "Yet, the latest proposed testing by Duke sets the stage for years more testing, and this proposal still sidesteps the most critical locations and questions on the site."
The Aquilogic tests of the drainage ditch under the Swamp Rabbit Trail show levels of "carcinogenic polyaromatic hyrdrocarbons" at least 20 times the threshold Duke has used on the site as a standard to initiate cleanup, Corley said.
Aquilogic in its report suggested several courses of action, including immediate excavation of the landfill and ponds that hold deposits of coal tar.
The firm suggested excavation of the drainage ditch and installation of a pump-and-treat system to purify groundwater, along with recommendations for testing that would determine for certain whether contaminated groundwater from the facility itself has reached the Reedy.
Since 2000, Duke has maintained that removal of contamination at the plant site would destroy the wetlands, a position that Aquilogic said was accepted by DHEC in a 2001 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The firm said that other similar restoration efforts across the country have been effective, and that while restoration would impact the wetland ecosystem in the near term, ultimately a healthier wetland system "would persist for many decades to come."
Duke maintains that its testing along the Reedy River shows results that don't exceed reporting limits and/or regulatory screening criteria. The company has installed groundwater monitoring wells and is in the process of adding more, Mosier said.
Duke doesn't own the wetlands that test for contamination, he said, and the unpermitted landfill that operated in the wetlands has left a layer of debris that "has further complicated some of the assessments and remediation at that part of the site."
Mosier said that Duke's aim is for "complete remediation" through efforts that are publicly documented through DHEC.