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Gadsden Creek becomes a flashpoint in Charleston discussion on environmental justice

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It played out, like a lot of public conversations these days, on Instagram. 

At the end of June, which was a month of protests for racial equality in the Charleston region, Friends of Gadsden Creek posted a message on their account titled: "An Open Letter on Environmental Racism to the Coastal Conservation League."

The group is a grassroots organization formed in 2018 of people who oppose the filling of Gadsden Creek, a tidal stream that winds through the west side of Charleston's peninsula. Developers of the mixed-use WestEdge project nearby have been looking to expand their footprint, and in the process, they say, it will be necessary to fill in the tidal stream.

But last year, while developers pursued a permit to fill the stream, prominent environmental organizations like the Coastal Conservation League didn't oppose the suggestion. Nor did Charleston Waterkeeper, another group that routinely opposes wetland destruction.

The situation has ignited broader conversations about whether the largely white conservation community in Charleston is attuned to the concerns of communities of color.

"Protecting and restoring Gadsden Creek is far more than an environmental act," read the Instagram letter, which garnered more than 500 likes. "It is a necessary step in addressing generations of environmental racism inflicted upon the Gadsden Green community."

Laura Cantral, the executive director of the League, said the group has engaged in many fights to protect minority neighborhoods and that the situation at Gadsden Creek is unique. It runs through land that was filled by the city of Charleston with an unlined trash dump from the 1950s to the 1970s, meaning the waterway is polluted from toxins that continue to leach out. Testing done by the developer that has showed those leachates, including heavy metals and harmful PCBs, on the property.

Because the dump was poorly maintained, the land there is also sinking, exacerbating flooding in the surrounding area today. Flooding has been a problem for years: one man who grew up on nearby Fishburne Street said he learned to swim in Charleston's floodwaters. The developer's plan to fill the creek and would include a new drainage system and an engineered wetland nearby.

"We have always maintained we’re open to anyone’s ideas" for the creek, Cantral said, but she urged that leaving the waterway the way it is isn't a tenable solution.

But for Friends of Gadsden Creek, that history makes it all the more important that the creek is preserved and cleaned up. Before there was a trash dump underneath, and before the nearby Gadsden Green public housing was erected in the 1940s, the city of Charleston wiped out dozens of homes, displacing Black families in the area. 

In its letter, the group wrote to the League: "You signaled to those in power, that further taking from the Gadsden Green community was justified. This is how systems of oppression are maintained."

Pollution in the creek today should not be an excuse to avoid cleaning up the stream, said Cyrus Buffum of Friends of Gadsden Creek. He argued that local groups have put significant efforts into waterways like James Island Creek or Shem Creek, both of which struggle with sewage contamination. 

"The folks at Gadsden Green, they need voice of the powerful, of the entities that have influence to bring about change," Buffum said. "Are they not worthy of that kind of strong voice from the Coastal Conservation League?"

A solution for Gadsden Creek might not be so simple, however: Andrew Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper said the creek is an expensive challenge because it would involve excavating the site to remove the contaminated dump.

Environmental justice

Friends of Gadsden Creek say the issues at play are those of environmental justice, or the longtime effort to correct environmental harms to people of color.

Those efforts figured prominently into Democratic presidential contenders' environmental plans as they courted South Carolina primary voters earlier this year, and interest in environmental justice has since been spurred anew amid the wave of activism that swept the country after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

But for years, large — and largely white — environmental groups around the country have overlooked the concerns of some Black and brown people, said Omar Muhammad, president of the North Charleston-based Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities. 

The mainstream environmental movement "tends to view the minority community as not being environmentally astute or caring enough about the environment, which is far from the truth," Muhammad said. "In African American communities, we're not only involved in the environmental movement, in many cases these communities are taking the brunt of environmental degradation."

The Coastal Conservation League and Charleston Waterkeeper both released statements in early June acknowledging this history and promising to do better to combat it. The League also specifically mentioned a commitment to make its organization more diverse. 

Asked whether the League had specific goals for how many people of color to hire or add to the board, Cantral said, "I'm not thinking about it like that. I think the answer is more. We want a more diverse organization, and diverse has many different meanings, including skin color."

Wunderley said Waterkeeper, which has only four employees, has few opportunities to hire. But he said the group has made it a goal to mentor a diverse group of students via the College of Charleston's Bonner Leader Program, which promotes social justice issues and civic engagement for the students who participate.

The group two years ago recruited Muhammad to join their board, in an attempt to bring new perspectives into their leadership. 

'Back to Green'

Maurice Washington, a former Charleston councilman who grew up in the Gadsden Green public housing next to the creek, said he still has fond memories of connecting with nature in the waterway. The trash dump meant the Ashley River was only visible from the second level of the housing at the complex, known by residents as "Back to Green." But in the creek, he spent free time fishing and crabbing and mucking in the pluff mud with friends. 

Neighbors often shared their catch from the stream, and there was no warning or concern in those days that the waterway might be polluted, he said.  

For Jamar Washington (no relation to Maurice), the stream was a source of entertainment he could walk to from his house on Fishburne Street. It was also a place of learning, where he went on class trips focused on the ecosystem of the creek. 

The League argues, however, that the developer's plan offers some benefits for residents of the area: it would improve pedestrian infrastructure to help members of the neighborhood move across the Septima P. Clark Parkway, also known as the Crosstown, safely. And WestEdge is promising improvements that will combat the flooding problems in the area, which are a persistent nuisance for the people who live there, including in Back to Green.

Jamar Washington, who now lives in Orangeburg, dealt with flooding too as he grew up in Charleston, pushing motorists' cars through swamped areas on Fishburne Street. But he questioned whether the creek had to be covered to fix the problem.

If the WestEdge developers do fill in the waterway, they will also have to mitigate the work by improving wetlands somewhere else, which is required by federal law. The site they have chosen in their plan is in Summerville, near the former Kings Grant golf course. 

Contamination

Discussion about contamination in Gadsden Creek now, Maurice Washington said, reminds him of a similarly sensitive episode in Charleston's path: the Ansonborough Homes, another public housing complex that was bulldozed because of environmental concerns, destroying 162 housing units.

Toxic creosote contamination was found on the site in the early 1990s. An office building has since sprouted on the site, and the S.C. Aquarium and luxury housing have been built nearby. Washington worried that the same type of redevelopment might be headed for Back to Green.

Meanwhile, the city of Charleston needs to be held responsible for its failure to maintain the trash dump site and the devastation it's caused, Cantral, Wunderley and Buffum all agreed.

Charleston, so far, is only focusing on determining whether the stream poses an immediate risk to public health and safety, said Susan Herdina, an attorney with the city. 

After WestEdge found contaminants, Charleston hired its own environmental firm to do more expansive testing there. The full report, Herdina said, should be completed in the next two weeks.

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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