Leadership For A Changing World: 2002 Awardees
ReGenesis, Spartanburg, SC
Photo by M.J. Sharp
The Art of Green Revival
Harold Mitchell and ReGenesis show how to turn toxic waste sites into livable communities.
For years, residents of Spartanburg, S.C., had been aware of the discoloration of neighborhood ponds, with orange and blue streaks, and tons of fertilizer left in vacated buildings and sulfuric acid in abandoned tanks. These were the visible remnants of a fertilizer plant operated and then abandoned by IMC Global, the world's largest producer and supplier of concentrated phosphates and potash fertilizers. The 46-acre IMC plant, which began operations in 1910, closed in 1986. "The communities I serve are ones in which people's lives have been decimated by thoughtless, callous decisions by various private and public entities to locate highly toxic producing facilities within arms reach of people's homes," says Harold Mitchell, who grew up in a house near the plant gates. "Polluted ponds of toxins, hills created by indiscriminant dumping of waste including the waste products from medical facilities became the playgrounds for innocent children and their uninformed parents. These communities have paid with a disproportionate share of cancers, respiratory diseases, miscarriages and only the future will reveal other maladies that may show up in future generations."
Seeds of Commitment
A graduate of Spartanburg High School, Mitchell studied business administration in college and worked as a promoter in the black gospel music field in the Washington, D.C. area. In 1991 he returned to Spartanburg, where he suffered a painful but undiagnosed illness. His father also suffered from a mysterious ailment and later died from it. Mitchell vowed to investigate the possible causes, concluded that they were environmental and launched a grassroots movement. Among his motivations: "My faith in God, my love for my family and the memory of my father who stood by my side in the earliest days of this fight to restore our community and to keep hope alive in the hearts of our friends and neighbors.... We have lost a lot of people in our community. I cannot say that every one of the deaths is related to the existence of high levels of toxic substances in the natural environment and the homes of these people, but I do believe that many are. The voices of the dead tend to ring loud in my mind as I press forward."
After a survey of the neighborhood by the E.P.A. in 1997 found no contaminants, Mitchell conducted an investigation of his own and presented his findings at a community meeting. The town decided to bring in non-profit organizations, naturalists and environmental justice groups. Mitchell built a coalition and in 1998, founded ReGenesis, a community-based, environmental justice organization with more than 1,400 members. ReGenesis works with 124 partners ranging from nonprofits, private sector and government agencies to raise public awareness and reverse the health impacts that industrial toxic wastes (dioxin, lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and others) have had on the Spartanburg region.
After ReGenesis presented its citizen research to the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency conducted tests in 1999, found toxic metals and contaminants and designated Spartanburg a Superfund site. Responding to the report, IMC - which had sold the property after the fertilizer plant closed - repurchased the property, covered several acres with a canopy to ensure that toxic particles did not get into the air and dismantled the old plant. At the request of ReGenesis, the company also placed monitors around the perimeter of the property.
Mitchell's work underscores the interrelatedness of environmental degradation and community decay and revival. For example, the ReGenesis Revitalization plan recently won funding to foster redevelopment for a regional landfill site. Mitchell has recently established a new project, Cleanup and Revitalization through Collaborative Partnerships, in the Arkwright and Forest Park communities. The Federal Interagency Work Group on Environmental Justice selected the ReGenesis plan as a national demonstration project. Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency Region honored ReGenesis with an inaugural Environmental Merit Award at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
His Leadership Style
A long-term strategic thinker, Harold Mitchell galvanized action first through individual effort - his own informal, but impressive initial survey of the health of his community; then he enlisted citizen activists and technical consultants; lastly he partnered with other organizations and government agencies. He uses a multi dimensional focus on community and environmental sustainability, recognizing the relationship between environmental clean up, transportation, health, public safety, housing and open space. "He stepped back and looked at it systemically," says Brian Holtzclaw, Environmental Justice Coordinator, Waste Management Division, E.P.A. in Atlanta. "Most community leaders...stay safe and deal only with the environmental issues. He has moved beyond that farther than in any community in the South. (As one of the quotes says - isn't part of his leadership style his persistence and his reliance on community with which he works)
ReGenesis is likely to gain approval this year for the establishment and operation of a federally supported Community Health Center. Additionally the department of Housing and Urban Development set aside a grant of $850,000 that is to be used to purchase and renovate a mill facility to house the health center and to acquire other property in the area for redevelopment. "In five years I see us drawing to the end of a comprehensive community revitalization program," Mitchell says. "By the end of 2002, we will have a fully operational community health center in this community. We will open up some 500 acres for redevelopment that will include businesses, new homes, a greenway and parks."
ReGenesis has established The ReGenesis International Environmental Justice Institute, dedicated to training, research and other forms of assistance related to environmentally compromised underdeveloped communities. But even without ReGenesis, the work would continue because of heightened public awareness and new lines of communication established by Mitchell.
More About Harold Mitchell
"Harold's great gift, aside from his tenacity, is the commitment to maintain close ties to the community that has borne the burdens of these circumstances. He regularly meets with individuals and groups, meets with the community controlled Board of Directors of ReGenesis and with other partners to ensure that everyone is kept abreast of developments. He is a collaborator and coalition builder."
- Glenice B. Pearson, President, The NonProfit Network, Inc., Columbia, S.C.
"Those honored today have gone above and beyond the call of duty to address public health and natural resource protection issues of concern and, in so doing, have made this region a better place for all of us."
- John H. Hankinson, Jr., E.P.A. Regional Administrator in Atlanta, announcing winners, including Harold Mitchell and other winners of Environmental Merit Awards, 2000
710 S. Church St.
Spartanburg, SC 29306