Environmental sacrifice zones can be beacons for clean energy investment

By Ben Jealous

(Trice Edney Wire) – Lower Richland County, South Carolina is a place steeped in history. The region, situated on wetlands and floodplain forest fed by the Congaree River, was an established agricultural center dating back more than 300 years. It is home to Congaree National Park and other important sites central to the experiences of African-Americans and indigenous peoples who have lived on the land over the centuries.

Despite the congressional establishment of the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976 and the subsequent designation of this land as a national park in 2003, much of the Lower Richland has been treated as an environmental sacrifice zone. Victim zones are populated areas that are exposed to particularly high levels of pollution and other environmental and health hazards, usually due to their proximity to industrial plants and other polluting facilities. According to the Climate Reality Project, “these areas are called ‘sacrifice zones’ because the health and safety of people in these communities are effectively sacrificed for the economic gains and prosperity of others.” And it’s no coincidence that sacrifice zones usually are in minority and/or low-income communities.

With unregulated landfills, a Superfund site and industrial plants, Lower Richland — with a history of redlining and a low-income, mostly black population — fits the bill. The International Processing Plant and Equipment Corporation (IPPE) is located on the former site of a steel mill that was closed due to cancer-causing contamination. The International Paper Sylvamo facility, the Wateree Station coal-fired power plant and the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant (which, even with a history of sick workers and radioactive leaks, just got a 40-year permit renewal) are also packed into Lower Richland.

As if the area wasn’t already burdened with more than its fair share of pollution, Lower Richland is just downriver from Columbia, South Carolina’s capital and largest city. Overdevelopment in the metro area and along its waterways threatens Lower Richland, including Congaree National Park, with increased flooding and additional pollution.

Lower Richland is an excellent example of a community that could benefit greatly from clean energy investments under the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – and the community is hungry for this opportunity.

Virginia Sanders, a longtime Richland County activist who is active in the Midlands Sierra Club and the Lower Richland branch of the NAACP and has served on the Richland County Conservation Commission for seven years, says:

“Lower Richland is a dumping ground for the rest of the county and the industries that grow here, while it could be a gold mine for the county and the state’s tourism industry.” We need a clean industry in this community.”

For that to happen, Ms. Sanders says it will take investment in both green jobs and the necessary training and education for area residents to secure and thrive in those jobs.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act offer such remedies. And the state of South Carolina is already benefiting.

New initiatives such as a BMW electric vehicle battery plant and a Bosch electric motor manufacturing facility are part of a $6.2 billion investment that promises significant economic growth and job creation for the state. More of these investments should be directed to communities like Lower Richland.

South Carolina has already applied for a grant under the Solar for All component of the IRA Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. Solar for All provides funding for job training and solar workforce development. And because Lower Richland is a low-income area, the already generous tax incentives for clean and renewable energy investments under the IRA are even more generous, allowing investors to recoup up to 60 percent of the dollars they put into the region.

Additionally, $203 million in IIJA funds, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, have already been announced for South Carolina to provide clean and safe water statewide and improve water infrastructure. This job is desperately needed in Lower Richland.

Despite being just minutes from Columbia, most Lower Richland residents still use well water for drinking and septic tanks for waste. Much of the groundwater is contaminated by all the local industrial pollution, and seepage from septic tanks is impacting Congaree National Park by entering the river and, according to Virginia Sanders, has even led to some local reports of raw sewage bubbling up from the ground .

The Lower Inflation Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can foster a sustainable, job-rich future and usher in a new era of prosperity and environmental progress. Let’s work together to ensure communities like Lower Richland are a part of it.

Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club, a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Never Forget Our People Have Always Been Free.

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