No matter where you go in Blythewood, whether it’s for happy hour at Scott Benny’s, a quick stop at the drug store, or grocery shopping at Food Lion on Blythewood Road, the hot topic on everyone’s lips is the pause in construction at the Scout Motors plant site. This pause comes in response to concerns raised by the South Carolina-based environmental group, the Congaree Riverkeeper who believe that more measures can be taken to safeguard the natural habitats affected by the construction.
The group’s concerns were recently conveyed in comments sent via email to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), acting on behalf of Congaree Riverkeeper, regarding Scout’s request for a permit to fill wetlands, ponds, and streams at the site.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the current construction pause and the ensuing dispute, it’s crucial to acquaint yourself with the key players and their roles. Allow me to provide you with a brief breakdown of the organizations involved, aside from Scout.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a federal agency responsible for a wide range of civil engineering and environmental projects. They are tasked with managing and regulating various aspects of water resources, including navigation, flood risk management, and environmental preservation. The Corps plays a crucial role in granting permits for construction projects that may impact wetlands, streams, and other aquatic ecosystems. In the case of Scout Motors, they are the authority responsible for deciding whether the company can proceed with their construction plans, which involve filling wetlands, ponds, and streams. Their decision will have significant implications for the project’s progress.
Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC)
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the environment in the Southeastern United States. They specialize in using the power of the law to protect natural resources, public health, and communities. SELC is known for advocating for the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.
In the context of the Scout Motors project, SELC is acting on behalf of the Congaree Riverkeeper to convey concerns about the potential environmental impacts of the construction. They play a vital role in ensuring that the project aligns with existing environmental regulations and safeguards the local ecosystem.
Congaree Riverkeeper is a 501(c)(3) organization based in Columbia, South Carolina. They serve as guardians for three of the Midlands’ rivers. For over a decade, they have been dedicated to preserving and enhancing water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities on the Broad, Lower Saluda, and Congaree Rivers. This is achieved through advocacy, education, and enforcement of environmental laws.
Their mission is to maintain the cleanliness and purity of these three rivers for the benefit of future generations.
It’s worth noting that the environmental group is not vehemently opposed to the Scout project. However, they have raised some valid concerns that elected officials have chosen not to address directly as of yet, or at least not publicly. Although I have been talking with several Richland County council members off the record regarding the concerns expressed in the comment letter submitted by SELC on behalf of the Congaree Riverkeeper, none have shared their thoughts on the issues raised as yet.
The Minority INFO Network on behalf of the South Carolina Minority-owned Media Association recently obtained a copy of the comment letter for review. So, in the spirit of full transparency, I’m going to attempt to break it down in simple terms so everyone can have a clear understanding of what the groups’ concerns are.
After carefully reviewing the comment letter, I’ll do my best to simplify the concerns of the Riverkeepers. My aim is to make sure that every resident, especially African-American residents of Richland County, comprehends the importance of these matters and their possible effects on our community’s well-being.
Wetlands are like nature’s sponge. They soak up water and help prevent floods. They also clean the water, acting as a natural filter, ensuring it’s nice and clean for other plants and animals downstream. Now, if, during construction, these sponges are covered up with dirt and cement, they can no longer soak up or clean the water before it moves downstream. And if they can’t do that, it could cause a lot of problems. It’s like when you start pushing over a line of dominoes – one falls, then they all start falling.
So needless to say, keeping these wetlands safe is super important to make sure everything downstream stays healthy and protected!
Now, let’s consider the streams in the area that will be affected. Streams are like the blood vessels and capillaries in our bodies, responsible for carrying blood to the right organs in the right amounts. Similarly, streams have a crucial role in flood mitigation. If the streams and other waterways at the site are filled, it could lead to flooding downstream, putting historically significant African-American neighborhoods like Denny Terrace, Haskell Heights, and Lincolnshire at risk.
The Clean Water Act / Offsets
To fully grasp the group’s concerns, you must now understand what the Clean Water Act is, as well as the concepts of mitigation and offsets. These factors play a crucial role in the project, highlighting the delicate balance between progress and environmental protection.
The Clean Water Act is a federal law enacted in 1972. Its primary purpose is to protect and restore the nation’s waters by regulating pollution discharges into navigable waters and setting water quality standards. The Act is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and enforced at both federal and state levels.
The Clean Water Act doesn’t explicitly use the term “offsets” in its text. However, it does emphasize the principle of mitigating environmental impacts. Under the Act, projects that may cause harm to wetlands, streams, or other water bodies require permits, often issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To obtain such permits, project developers need to implement compensatory mitigation measures. These measures are intended to offset the adverse effects on the environment, typically by restoring, creating, or enhancing similar aquatic resources elsewhere.
Scout Motors has now agreed to several offsets, including a stream restoration project in Sumter National Forest to compensate for wetlands loss. Scout’s proposed offsets also encompass nearly 5,000 acres of wetlands near Congaree National Park, along with additional acres on Shelton Island. However, the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Congaree Riverkeeper, suggests focusing on improvements around Crane Creek. They believe that prioritizing areas directly impacted would better serve the community. This seems logical, doesn’t it? So what’s the issue? Why wouldn’t Scout just say yes? Well, they haven’t said no either. All we can do now is wait and see. It’s worth noting that the neighborhoods surrounding Crane Creek are predominantly African-American. While we’re not implying that race will influence their decision-making process, it’s essential to acknowledge the historically unfair treatment of African-American neighborhoods in projects of similar nature.
These may not be the best examples, but they are certainly worth mentioning, especially when considering the potential for flooding. Two of the most significant instances in South Carolina’s history of African American neighborhoods being affected by construction on waterways are the displacements of Morris Village and “Lake Murray Town,” commonly known as “Ghost Town.”
The flooding of both Morris Village and Lake Murray Town occurred in Lexington County, South Carolina, as part of the Santee-Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project in the 1930s.
The Morris Village displacement occurred during this project which aimed to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Santee and Cooper Rivers. As part of this large-scale construction effort, the creation of the Santee-Cooper Lakes (Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie) led to the flooding of extensive areas, including the predominantly African-American community of Morris Village. This community, located in the vicinity of the Santee River, was displaced due to the rising waters.
“Lake Murray Town,” is often referred to as a “ghost town” and was located in Lexington County, South Carolina. It was intentionally flooded during the construction of the Lake Murray Dam, also a component of the Santee-Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project of the 1930s. Both communities held historical and cultural significance. In both cases, the communities were permanently altered, and the residents experienced significant disruption to their lives. The construction projects represented a trade-off between progress in infrastructure and the displacement of established communities. The legacy of these events is part of the broader historical narrative of how large-scale development projects impacted local communities, particularly African-American communities.
Now, I understand the question may arise: why bring these examples up when the flooding these communities experienced was intentional, and with the Scout project, we’re only dealing with streams and wetlands? I would confidently answer that I don’t need to make a case for it. The Congaree Riverkeeper has already expressed concern in their comments, noting the increasing frequency and intensity of flooding incidents in the Southeast, particularly in the context of the proposed Project Connect. They pointed out that since 2014, there have been numerous examples of intense rainfall events, some of which reached levels expected only once every 500 years. These events garnered significant attention in the news due to their devastating impact on inland communities. These incidents emphasize the growing threat of flooding in the region and the need for careful consideration of its potential impacts in the evaluation of this project.
Overall, the group has outlined several major concerns regarding the construction of the Scout Motors plant in their letter.
Concerns expressed are:
- The need for a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
- The potential loss of 74 acres of wetlands and 7 miles of tributaries, which provide flood mitigation and water quality benefits.
- The impact on downstream communities, including historically Black neighborhoods, due to increased flooding and degraded water quality.
- The potential increase in polluted stormwater runoff and its detrimental effects on nearby and downstream water bodies.
- The need for compliance with the Clean Water Act 404(b)(1) Guidelines to minimize adverse impacts on aquatic resources.
- Concerns about the adequacy of the proposed mitigation plan to offset the significant environmental losses.
- Questions regarding the preservation of Shelton Island as compensatory mitigation and its potential effectiveness.
- The importance of considering climate resiliency, especially in the face of increasing extreme rainfall events, in the public interest review.
- The need for a balanced approach that weighs the benefits of the project against its potential harms to the environment and communities.
As Richland County citizens, it is imperative that we not only acknowledge but actively address the concerns raised by the Congaree Riverkeeper. Each one of us holds a responsibility to advocate for the careful consideration of each of the issues raised. Let us collectively engage in reviewing these concerns and passionately lobby our elected officials and Scout executives to implement the required safety measures. By doing so, we can ensure that progress is achieved without compromising the invaluable natural treasures that enrich Richland County. Together, we as Richland County citizens can strike the balance between growth and preservation, safeguarding our environment for generations to come.
About Plugging into Prosperity
“Plugging into Prosperity” is a special multimedia series that delves into the economic impact of Scout Motors in Richland County. It examines how projects of this scale can have positive effects on minority-owned businesses and other underrepresented individuals and communities in the areas where such economic initiatives are implemented. The series includes a mix of virtual and in-person recorded interviews, podcasts, and editorials featuring Scout representatives, elected officials, community leaders, experts, Richland County residents, and other stakeholders. They will provide an in-depth analysis, offer news and updates on the project’s status, and share their perspectives, ideas, and experiences regarding economic development endeavors like this one.