Dispatches from the Front Lines
Four South Carolina activists talk about life in the trenches
BY BECCI ROBBINS
Rep. Joe Neal
Every now and then, when politics gets especially ugly, he thinks about walking away. Then he weighs the cost to his constituents, thinks about the satisfaction it would give his opponents, and resolves to stick it out.
Rep. Joe Neal (D-Richland), a Baptist minister, was elected to the House in 1993. It was his experience battling a toxic waste site in his neighborhood that first compelled him to run for office.
A toxic chemical recycling plant had abandoned thousands of barrels on site, Neal remembers. "Some of them had been punched with holes and chemicals were simply drained into the soil. Others were left to rust in the weather."
Over the years, he says, the chemical site left an underground plume of pollution that threatened to enter the aquifer.
"For years we worked to seek remediation," Neal says. Their work got them nowhere.
"Through that process it became clear that we needed to have an aggressive voice in the political arena to ask the hard questions and push for change," he says. "I ran because it was the right thing to do."
Neal lives about 20 miles south of Columbia, in Hopkins, which he describes as rural, majority African-American and dirt poor. It is also home to a laundry list of industrial sites.
"In my community," he says, "we have a nuclear fuel processing plant, seven landfills of different sorts, a coal-fired generating station, a paper mill, and sundry other polluting operations."
It is no accident that these businesses have located in his neighborhood, Neal says.
What has happened in Hopkins has a name: environmental racism, the phenomenon of polluting industries locating in low-income and minority communities. In South Carolina, 21 out of 23 Superfund sites in 1993 were located in communities of color. A site is included on the federal Superfund list if it poses the highest potential risk to the environment and public health.
"Try to get a hazardous waste facility permitted in Shandon," Neal says, referring to an upscale, majority-white neighborhood in Columbia. "It's just not going to happen."
During his first year in office, Neal drafted what he called the "Environmental Bill of Rights," which would protect any single community from housing a disproportionate amount of potentially hazardous facilities.
The bill did not pass.
It did not pass the next year, either. Or the next.
"We could not get it out of committee," Neal says. "Industry opponents to the bill were very outspoken. They looked at it as interfering with their ability to be profitable."
Even though it did not pass, Neal does not regret sponsoring the bill, which was among the first of its kind in the country and was used as a prototype for similar bills in other states.
This spring, Neal will cosponsor a bill to restructure DHEC. He thinks the agency would be more efficient if it were split in two.
"Having a department of health that focuses purely on issues of health and a department of the environment focused purely on environmental issues gives us better quality in both areas," he says.
He thinks DHEC not only failed his community but is failing the state of South Carolina.
Getting the restructuring bill passed will require that South Carolinians become informed and involved, Neal says. "Unfortunately, this is the kind of issue that people often
don't care about until it happens in their community, when it is their homes that are surrounded by a waste dump or landfill or hog farm. But normally it is too late by then. We need to
care about the environment before it goes bad for
Dell Isham was a lobbyist for 13 years, a mayor for two, and spent eight years in the Oregon Senate. He knows how the sausage is made.
That experience serves him well in his job as executive director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, a role he assumed in 1997. He notes with amusement that he has gone from moderate to liberal simply by his change of address, but says that the political process here is the same as it is in Oregon: greased with money and steeped in partisanship. Except here they smile more.
"South Carolinians are polite," he says. "You never know what they're really thinking." Until they vote.
"Here, as in other states, money changing hands changes votes," Isham says. "But in South Carolina it is the citizens who pay the highest price. That is clearly the case when it comes to the environment."
Something else he's noticed since moving to the capital city: "It's easy to stop things here, but it's hard to make things happen." When it comes to the environment, he says, there is a tendency to manage problems rather than prevent them.
He thinks that the way industry is permitted means South Carolina is forever doing damage control. He'd like to see that change.
"DHEC appears inordinately to focus on jobs, regardless of the types of jobs, the cost to the public or the kind of pollution involved," he says. "The general public is too smart to buy that any more. They should not be treated like a colony."
Sierra Club supports the bill to restructure DHEC, but Isham expects an uphill fight. There is polluting industry on one hand, and public indifference on the other. The first he understands; the second he doesn't. "I'm disturbed that more people aren't upset."
Isham hopes that as public awareness increases so will the level of political pressure.
"Having been a legislator, I know 12 letters can make a difference," he says. "Constituents have no idea how much power they have. I think things are the way they are at
DHEC because nobody has challenged them."
Mary Kelly says she spends more time than she should writing letters, sitting through public hearings and making phone calls to pressure legislators and policy makers to vote the way she thinks they should.
Kelly has been an activist since 1972, when she joined the South Carolina League of Women Voters. Before that, she had been busy rearing seven children and teaching part-time.
Her family moved to South Carolina in 1965, when her husband took a job in Winnsboro. The two met at New York University, where they both were awarded PhDs in chemistry.
Kelly first waded into politics after a series of bad experiences with waste water. "I've had three different septic systems in my life," she says. "That will make an environmentalist out of anyone."
Kelly got involved with the League after learning about the Laidlaw Hazardous Waste Landfill in Sumter County, in Pineville. The company, now operating as Safety Kleen, was incorporated in 1977. DHEC issued Laidlaw a permit without providing any public notice, without seeking any public comment and without any technical review of the proposed landfill operations.
"We thought it was not a great idea to put [the landfill] near Lake Marion," Kelly says. "When we went out there it wasn't lined, it just had barrels. I thought it was inadequate."
When she was in college, Kelly worked at a chemical manufacturing plant. "I had an idea of how things operate," she says. "In those days, we dumped into the river, the Hudson. It didn't go into secure landfills. What you once could do, you can't do anymore. You have to have social responsibility."
Her own sense of social responsibility has made Kelly one of the most visible environmentalists in South Carolina.
Environmental lawyer Bob Guild for years has watched her in action, and is impressed by her doggedness. "Mary Kelly has been a long-standing, conscientious observer of the regulatory process and a consistent critic of DHEC, both as a scientist and advocate for the environment," Guild says. "Tireless would be a good word for her."
DHEC too often operates on short-term memory, the result of its ever-changing staff and board, Guild says. "Mary has an institutional memory and has the ability to hold DHEC and elected officials to the historic record, which is a critical function."
After years of faithful attendance, Kelly no longer goes to DHEC board meetings. "When the Republicans came in, there was a different climate," she says. "DHEC board members were less open to working with environmentalists. Under Beasley, DHEC employees were not free to talk. Everything had to go through the governor."
Kelly thinks "things have got to get better" under the Hodges administration but knows that the problem with the environment in South Carolina is not just political but cultural as well.
"This is an elite-run state; the rest of the population just goes along." She thinks that is a dangerous construct. "The only safety is in a certain level of skepticism."
Kelly supports the effort to restructure DHEC. But while she is critical of DHEC officials, she is sympathetic toward the agency's staff. "I am not a DHEC basher," she says.
"I think they do, under the circumstances, the best job they can do. Most of the people who work at DHEC, their hands are
The nearly 30 years that Bob Guild has been tilting at windmills in South Carolina, first as an anti-war activist and later as an environmental lawyer, don't seem to have dulled his love of the sport. Battling "the bad guys" year in and year out may have tempered his idealism with a measure of pragmatism, but he remains essentially, inexplicably, optimistic.
He feels deeply about preserving the environment -- not for tourists or for people out to make a buck, but for those who call South Carolina home. "People have a right to breathe clean air and drink clean water," he says.
Unlike other political issues, he says, environmental protection affects all of us, hits us where we live -- literally. "What's attractive to me about fighting for the environment is that it's a value we all have in common, that connects us across the board. The only people who have an interest contrary to ours are in it for gain or greed."
Guild, who helped draft legislation to restructure DHEC, knows what the bill is up against.
"Most decisions in the legislature are made because someone came to shmooze, not after open debate and based on public will," he says.
Unlike their opposition, backers of the bill do not have well-paid lobbyists to work the legislature on their behalf. Instead, supporters of restructuring are counting on common sense and common decency to carry the bill. It remains to be seen whether South Carolinians will rise to the occasion.
"In South Carolina, we are a product of a historical, pervasive learned helplessness," Guild says. "There is a political culture here that is driven by economics and social history."
Guild believes that the state's plantation history is to blame for a host of modern-day problems: lower voter turnout, extensive poverty and poor education. "We have low expectations. South Carolinians have an abiding belief that they can't control their own destiny. Challenging authority is not in their radar scope. They don't expect that changing the world is within the realm of possibility."
As a child, Guild grew up with the expanded world view of an Army brat. As an adult, he has found his heart grafted to the land and people of South Carolina. "For good or bad, this is home and I want to take responsibility for that," he says. "I'm invested as a member of the community. I've been in the same house for 29 years. I'm not going anywhere."
Guild lives in Olympia, Columbia's mill village, a neighborhood shaped by its history. "Mill people," he says, "have had every aspect of their lives dictated by The Man. They are conditioned to accept the world as it is."
In spite of our collective cultural baggage, Guild believes that a grassroots campaign to reinvent DHEC can succeed. "It must be grounded in popular experience of South Carolinians who have found a political system that abuses their interests and ignores their needs," he says.
He hopes they wake up before it is too late, "while we still have something worth