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Boom & Balance

Union Heights residents work with SC Ports Authority and others to monitor air pollution

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Bryson Rivers, 10, dribbles a basketball while shooting hoops in front of his grandmother’s house on Groveland Avenue in the Union Heights neighborhood in North Charleston on  May 3, 2021. Union Heights is only about a half-mile from the State Ports Authority's new Hugh K. Leatherman shipping terminal. Lauren Petracca/Staff

In an area called “the Neck” — a cluster of small neighborhoods and industrial sites that straddle the border between Charleston and North Charleston — residents must cope with all sorts of unneighborly challenges.

Through this narrow stretch runs an interstate. Here one finds a cement company, a chemical plant that produces phosphorus chloride, a lumber mill, a holding lot for towed vehicles, a scrap metal processing operation, and a couple of strip clubs.

The Neck was home to a pretty big neighborhood that was split into two — Union Heights and Rosemont — by Interstate 26 when it was constructed in the 1960s. Through this low-income residential area, around 120,000 vehicles pass each day.

That number is about to increase now that the State Ports Authority’s Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal is open for business. The terminal is less than half a mile east of Union Heights and Rosemont, and the new Port Access Road connects to I-26 exactly between the two neighborhoods.

The SPA estimates that, once the terminal is at full capacity by the early 2030s, around 7,000 diesel trucks will use the access road every day. This has raised concerns among residents and health advocates that increases in air pollution — specifically the particulate matter spewed by diesel engines — will put people already at a disadvantage at further risk.

Studies show that very fine aerosol particulate matter (PM 2.5) contributes directly to premature mortality in the U.S., where it’s the ninth-largest risk factor. In 2016, more than 100,000 people died prematurely due to exposures to these microscopic pollutants. Exposure to PM 2.5 has been linked to ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer, notes one government study. It also can contribute to cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

But a collaboration among residents, the SPA, Palmetto Railways, government officials and the Medical University of South Carolina could help mitigate the looming problem. The air-monitoring project is spearheaded by the Charleston Community Research to Action Board, the environmental arm of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities.

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The Union Heights neighborhood in North Charleston is pictured against Interstate 26 and the new Port Access Road on May 5, 2021. Residents are concerned about increases in truck traffic, and the resulting particulate matter emitted by diesel engines. Lauren Petracca/Staff

CCRAB has received $300,000 of $4.3 million in community mitigation funding provided by the SPA to install two main air-quality detectors in the Union Heights neighborhood. The mitigation funding was secured after negotiations sparked by the detailed Environmental Impact Statement produced by the Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Highways Administration in late 2006. That report describes the physical and social consequences of the new ports terminal, adhering to the federal government’s National Environmental Policy Act.

The NEPA process is designed to engage local communities, foster collaboration and, ultimately, reach a compromise solution. It worked as planned, according to community leaders.

Union Heights Council President Skip Mikell touted this latest example of what he called “citizen science.” Several years ago, college students took soil samples in search of contaminants left behind by phosphorus processing in the area, and they trained residents to do the same. Now residents are working with companies and government agencies to sample the air.

“I see this as (a model) for industry and communities for the future,” Mikell said.

Working together

The construction of a major new commercial shipping terminal is a complex undertaking that results in significant changes to the marine and terrestrial landscape. For local residents, it means more traffic, pollution and noise.

The Leatherman terminal opened for business in March, though only a portion of the facility is in use. Phase One throughput capacity is 700,000 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs). Phase Two should be completed by 2028, according to Corporate Communications Manager Liz Crumley. The terminal should be fully operational by 2033, with a throughput capacity of 2.4 million TEUs.

Crumley said it’s too early to know with certainty what sort of traffic volume can be expected, and the buildout schedule is subject to change. Every container will be transported by truck to and from the ships. An intermodal railway facility eventually will accommodate a portion of the cargo.

The Port Access Road was built not only to help the terminal operate efficiently but also to ensure that port traffic bypassed local roads and avoided nearby neighborhoods, Crumley said.

Originally, the SPA offered 10 jobs as an answer to mitigating these impacts, according to LAMC Executive Director Omar Muhammad. But the community alliance wanted much more: affordable housing, education opportunities, economic development initiatives and environmental justice.

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Skip Mikell, Union Heights neighborhood president (right), talks to his neighbor, Kenneth Metheny, about a DHEC air- monitoring system (background) across from Metheny’s home in North Charleston on May 3, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

It was not enough merely to minimize the potential damage that a new terminal would inflict on nearby neighborhoods; such an approach would only slow socioeconomic erosion. Rather, programs were needed to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods that have endured a series of past assaults, Muhammad said.

Negotiations eventually resulted in a $4.3 million investment from the SPA — not enough to achieve all of LAMC’s goals, but a good start.

The money was divvied up and deposited into various endowment funds managed by the Coastal Community Foundation, as well as a couple of liquid funds to support immediate needs, Muhammad said. Instead of 10 jobs, residents now can benefit from scholarships for high school students; workforce development money to assist residents interested in attending Trident Technical College; and community micro-grants to support entrepreneurship.

The government's report on environmental and community impacts of the S.C. State Ports Authority's Hugh K. Leatherman terminal.

LAMC set up the Community First Land Trust several years ago, and provided $100,000 in initial funding, to manage the construction of low-income housing in the Union Heights neighborhood. Today, two homes are nearly complete. Each special lease comes with $10,000 to assist homeowners with expenses.

Recently, LAMC negotiated with Palmetto Railways, which partners with SPA to transport containers to and from the new terminal, to provide $4 million in mitigation funding, $1 million of which will be directed toward quality-of-life projects and $3 million of which will be used to replace the old Sterett Hall on the former Navy base with a new community recreation center, Muhammad said. Sterett Hall closed in 2016 to make way for Palmetto Railway’s $130 million Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, which serves the new terminal. The new recreation center will be built on Carner Avenue in Chicora-Cherokee, near the Military Magnet Academy.

All of the SPA’s $4.3 million has been received by LAMC, Muhammad said. Palmetto Railways has paid $300,000 of its $1 million quality-of-life mitigation commitment so far, with $100,000 to be transferred to LAMC annually over seven years. He said it took time to build mutual trust, but the result is a fruitful collaboration.

“Over years of working with each other, I think we have learned that we all are working towards a common goal,” Muhammad said.

Leatherman Terminal has five ship-to-shore cranes (copy)

The Leatherman terminal has five ship-to-shore cranes with 169 feet of lift height above the wharf deck and 228 feet of outreach, capable of working the biggest containerships calling the East Coast. The terminal is opening in three phases and, ultimately, will have a throughput capacity of 2.4 million TEUs. Walter Lagarenne/SCPA/Provided

Pollution monitoring

Nevertheless, environmental impacts are problematic. Particulate matter is a known health hazard, and more of it soon will be added to the air that residents of Union Heights breathe. When the soot is tiny enough — 2.5 microns or less — it enters the bloodstream through the respiratory system.

No amount of PM 2.5 is safe, but the Environmental Protection Agency deems it acceptable when the air has less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Currently in Union Heights, there’s about 9 micrograms per cubic meter in the air, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control data.

Decades ago, regulations were far less stringent and health impacts not so well known. An incinerator in the Neck Area spewed fine cinders into the sky; fertilizer factories processing phosphate mined along the Ashley River contaminated the area; and, beginning in the late-1960s, vehicular traffic coursed along Interstate 26.

To measure air pollution, especially particulate matter, but also nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, DHEC has installed a device along Irving Street. The unit became operational in June 2020 and will remain in use at least through May 2022. Its purpose is to compare air pollution levels before and after the new terminal is functioning.

Two more air-monitoring units are placed at the Gethsemani Community Center in Union Heights, 2449 Beacon St., and the Perry Webb Community Center near Accabee Park in North Charleston, 3200 Appleton Ave. These units are part of the five-year community monitoring project that was negotiated between LAMC and the SPA — a rare example of an agreement reached between a neighborhood group and a state agency.

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The Port Access Road connecting the new Hugh K. Leatherman Port Terminal and Interstate 26, is pictured on May 5, 2021. The road passes by the Union Heights neighborhood of North Charleston. Lauren Petracca/Staff

John Pearce, a professor of environmental health, has run an air-monitoring lab at MUSC since 2015. A partner in the community mitigation effort, Pearce has overseen the installation of the two project stations, and has begun to collect the data they generate.

The two units are calibrated to match as closely as possible the DHEC system, and the data is fed in real time to a community web page for all to see. The information can help residents better plan outdoor activities to avoid daily spikes in air pollutants, Pearce said.

Rhonda Thompson, chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Air Quality, said the air monitoring by her agency and by the community will ensure that pollution sources are pinpointed geographically. That, in turn, will help guide any remediation efforts.

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A DHEC air-monitoring station on Irving Street in the Union Heights neighborhood in North Charleston on May 3, 2021. The station was installed in agreement with the SPA to measure particulate matter and other pollutants that could increase now that the new shipping terminal is operational. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Today, levels of PM 2.5, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide in the Neck Area are relatively low, she said. The EPA regulates the trucking industry, so if spikes caused by diesel emissions are detected, DHEC has two main options, Thompson said. It can look for ways to reduce pollutants from other sources, bringing down overall levels, and it can invoke the EPA’s Diesel Emission Reduction Act, helping companies retrofit trucks to use low-sulfur diesel fuel and filters that sequester soot.

The SPA, in partnership with DHEC, received $2 million in 2019 to repurpose 12 gantry cranes at the Wando terminal in Mount Pleasant with hybrid systems to reduce noxious emissions and nearly eliminate release of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. 

Benefiting all

The new Leatherman terminal could not function efficiently without help from the Department of Transportation, which constructed the Port Access Road and highway exchanges. It did so while attending to the needs and concerns of nearby communities, Assistant Director of Public Relations Ted Creech said.

The overarching idea behind the NEPA process is to identify and mitigate social and economic disruption, and provide long-term value, Creech said.

DOT has constructed a noise barrier between the interstate and Rosemont neighborhood, added extra right of way as a buffer, improved the safety of railway crossings near the Port Access Road, and built a 5-foot-wide sidewalk and a 10-foot-wide multiuse path along Stromboli Avenue and the Bainbridge connector.

Discussions with local residents led to community engagement, Creech said. DOT introduced a school-to-work internship program between 2017 and 2020, and awarded 10 scholarships of $2,000 to students interested in the transportation industry.

“You learn from the past, and you realize that you’re not building bridge for the sake of concrete, metal and steel, you’re building it for ... people to use it, and to bring people together,” Creech said.

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The Rosemont neighborhood and I-26 in Charleston. Rosemont and the adjacent Union Heights neighborhood once were unified. This residential area in a low-lying part of the Charleston peninsula was established by African Americans after the Civil War. In the years since, residents have been subjected to environmental pollution, divisive highway projects and economic decline. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Mikell said DHEC and MUSC aren’t the only ones monitoring air pollution. His group, the Charleston Community Research to Action Board, hopes to equip residents with small PurpleAir devices to generate even more data. It’s all part of the citizen science that's required to ensure residents can defend themselves and advocate for productive change, he said.

He’s hoping the SPA, which has easy access to intertidal rivers and full exposure to the sun, can move to a sustainable energy model, using hydro- and solar power to generate the electricity it needs.

“The sources are already there,” Mikell said.

Muhammad said African American communities in the southern part of North Charleston already are isolated because of past projects, industry and economic decline. A new project, if not well managed, can inflict additional environmental harm or trigger unregulated gentrification that pushes current residents out. So he is encouraging a strategic regional approach that considers the bigger picture and results in broad improvements that benefit all.

“When we do that, we need to be honest about how we incorporate equity into those systems,” he said.

It begins with meaningful engagement at the onset of a new initiative, akin to what has happened with the SPA’s Leatherman terminal project. That engenders trust, Muhammad said. Next, any new large-scale effort must address past harms, he said. Mitigation is not enough; repair is needed — and new opportunities for future growth.

“When it doesn’t benefit the whole community, then the whole community suffers.”

Contact Adam Parker at

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