A Promise Fulfilled: Environmental Justice at work in Spartanburg, SC

Gina McCarthy Gina McCarthy

I just got back from visiting Spartanburg, South Carolina, a city of 180,000 and a national leader on environmental justice issues. Back in 1997, the neighborhoods of Forest Park and Arkwright on the south side of the city were surrounded by two Superfund sites, six Brownfields, and an active chemical plant. In Spartanburg, the soil that children played in, and that their homes were built on, were contaminated with toxic chemicals. But local resident Harold Mitchell was determined to improve the quality of life for his family and community and set out to address the root of the problems.

Mitchell went door to door, letting folks know about the health concerns they faced, and founded ReGenesis, a community organization committed to environmental justice in Spartanburg. In 1997, ReGenesis was awarded an Environmental Justice small grant of $20,000 from EPA. Over time, the city, county, state, and federal government agencies got involved—and since then, Spartanburg has turned that grant into more than $270 million in investments in the community.

Today, community health centers, affordable housing and a state-of-the-art recreation center stand because of the collaborative efforts the Superfund and Brownfields programs, the community and a host of local partners. A solar generation facility is being planned where an old chemical plant once stood. New mixed-use housing has replaced old, unsafe stock. Community members have been trained in asbestos abatement—and they’ve found work not just in Spartanburg, but in Virginia, where they helped renovate the Pentagon, and in New Orleans, where they helped rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

I had the chance to meet Harold Mitchell—now a South Carolina state representative—and visited the former Superfund and Brownfield sites with Mayor Junie White, and other county officials.

After seeing these dramatic changes for myself, I heard from the community leaders who made it happen. We met inside the new community center—a major investment in the quality of life of Spartanburg residents. It was incredible to see what they’ve achieved by putting the community in charge of its own destiny.

Spartanburg is a shining beacon of what’s possible when folks impacted by community decisions have a seat at the table. As the Superfund program celebrates 35 years of revitalizing communities, I was thrilled to celebrate such an amazing success story because at the core of EPA’s mission is the belief that no matter who you are or where you come from, you have the right to clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.

That said, we’ve still got work to do. Too often, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution and health risks. Those same communities are vulnerable to the devastating floods, fires, storms and heat waves supercharged by climate change.

To make matters worse, the carbon pollution fueling climate change comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants that cause chronic disease and chase away local businesses and jobs. Power plants, our biggest source of carbon pollution, are often located in these areas, casting their shadow over communities already vulnerable to environmental health hazards.

That’s why EPA is doubling down on efforts to fulfill the promise of environmental justice. Spartanburg’s success helped us develop a collaborative problem-solving program for vulnerable communities, helping communities give a voice to those who’ve too often been left out of important planning decisions.

EPA recently released EJScreen, a tool that lets anyone see the pollution burden in their neighborhoods, and explore how various decisions could improve their quality of life. We’ve also awarded more than 1,400 EJ small grants to date, and we’ll continue to give local communities the training and expertise they need to address pollution challenges.

And this summer, we’re finalizing a Clean Power Plan to cut the carbon pollution fueling climate change from our nation’s power plants. Under our standards, our nation will avoid more than 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in 2030—and will protect vulnerable communities from climate impacts.

Last week in Charleston, President Obama gave a eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a victim of this month’s tragedy at Emmanuel AME Church and a champion for Spartanburg’s revitalization, as well as renewable energy, in the South Carolina Senate. Speaking to Rev. Pinckney’s legacy, the President called on all Americans to fulfill the promise of a more equal, more just society.

By putting environmental justice at the heart of what we do, EPA is responding to that call.

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