Environmental groups join fight for neighborhoods

Nancy Button grew up in Rosemont before I-26 split the neighborhood in the 1960s. She has worked as an activist for her community with little success.

Tiny Rosemont sits along the Ashley River marsh. It could be one of those quaint riverside communities that conservation-minded people love.

But Interstate 26 was routed within a driveway’s width of its chain-link fences and the roar is constant. The community in the Charleston Neck area is ringed by industrial sites that have been major pollution problems in the past. It’s also downwind of some of the smelliest toxic air emissions in the Lowcountry.

Railway port trains run just past its entrance, and a highway-access ramp for a new port terminal will run at the community’s edge. The community has been anything but conserved.

“She’s 84. She’s 94. Most of these people have been here for years and years,” said community activist Nancy Button pointing to her neighbors’ homes. “There’s nothing you can do about progress. We just want to be treated fairly.”

The area north of the peninsula where Rosemont and other small neighborhoods sit isn’t what you would think of as the sort of place environmental activists would fight for. Yet communities such as these are becoming the new battleground for groups long tied to landscape conservation, sometimes at a cost to residents.

The movement is called environmental justice. The idea isn’t new. But it appears to be coming of age, with such traditional “landscape” groups as the Sierra Club being urged to partner with civil and social rights groups on community issues.

Aaron Mair, board president of the Sierra Club, recently urged South Carolina chapter members to take on fights such as the flooding last fall, exacerbated by dam collapses, that disproportionately hurt lower income neighborhoods downstream.

“It is the environmental threat that ties us together. We must get out of that thinking that all I have to do is save this mountain, this landscape, and I’m OK. That old perspective is incredibly environmentally destructive,” Mair said. “The first to be impacted by environmental degradation are the poor and minorities.”

The groups in the past have worked to restore neighborhood land after environmental disasters, such as the 1970s Love Canal chemical dump that leaked poisons into the soil and homes of nearby residents and a school. But conservationists didn’t consider themselves as social activists and hesitated to reach out to those groups, said Katie Zimmerman, Coastal Conservation League program director.

The traditional conservation clubs, frankly, were “white men with a fair amount of money,” she said. What’s changed is “more and more people are starting to put together that environmental issues are a prime mover behind social issues,” she said.

In the Lowcountry, the league has worked on community issues such as toxin removal, buffers and green space. In South Carolina, the Sierra Club has fought to clean up nuclear waste in Barnwell and a toxic dump in Pinewood.

“Often when you look at environmental issues, they are also civil rights or social justice issues,” said Chris Hall, state chapter chairman. “We see a renewed opportunity to make the connection between citizens’ rights and the environment. This year, we’ll be advocating to both add an Environmental Bill of Rights amendment to our state constitution and also adopt a new Environmental Property Rights statute in our state code of law.”

On top of the port access ramp, new lanes are planned for I-26 that will impinge even more on Rosemont, where fewer than 300 people live. A noise-buffering wall has been promised. But the noise and emissions will only get worse for the 63-year-old Button and her neighbors.

The National Institutes of Health in a 2014 study said that the level of disease-causing particulate matter, essentially carbon-emission flakes, has fallen in the Charleston region since the 1960s, but remains worse in the Neck communities. They are fighting to get cleaned up what they can, to protect the quality of life that still remains.

“We hear the trains at night. You hear the cars all the time. You try to put it in the back of your mind. You try to not let it bother you. Most of the time you smell it at night, smell the chemicals. Your head gets stopped up. Your chest hurts,” Button. “I would welcome anybody, any help, anything that can change things.”

The community will have the Conservation League behind them.

“The more we talk about transportation issues, the more environmental justice is going to be an issue,” Zimmerman said. “It’s what makes me angriest and it’s what keeps me working.”

Reach Bo Petersen at (843) 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.