Today, Harold Mitchell, Jr. is a legendary name in environmental advocacy and a 13-year veteran of the South Carolina State House with an impressive record and reputation. In 1993, he was just a young man searching for an answer to why his Spartanburg community was suffering from a spate of fatal respiratory sicknesses.
After founding the ReGenesis project in 1997 to clean up the Arkwright and Forest Park communities that were contaminated by waste and chemical sites, Mitchell turned his mission into a grassroots movement that spread statewide and won national allies.
With passion, persistence and a focus on building partnerships, he leveraged an initial EPA grant of $20,000 into $270 million worth of community investment. Now, these communities boast 500 new affordable housing units, several community health centers, job training and employment programs that empower residents through economic opportunity, new retail development, a state of the art community center, and the transformation of contaminated brownfields into viable properties.
We caught up with Mitchell this week, shortly after his retirement from the South Carolina State House, for a wide-ranging conversation starting with his path to becoming an environmental justice warrior. Here’s what he had to say:
ON HIS PATH TO ADVOCACY
It was something that I was not looking to do. It was strictly by the Damascus Road experience. After I left school, I was throwing up blood, and the doctors couldn’t determine what was going on for 8 or 9 months. I was back at the house where I grew up, my grandmother’s house, where my parents lived. That’s when I ended up finding out about the fertilizer plant there. It was right across the street, abandoned.
ON WHAT HE DID NEXT
I called the local county. I was shifted around to a bunch of agencies and all of a sudden I ended up at the state environmental agency. The lady there thought I was coming in to review a FOIA request, and by mistake she gave me all the files on the site. When I started looking through the files, it was like a slap in the face. I was obsessed with what I found. Looking at all of the stuff in there started making me think of my sister’s death. We didn’t know what it was at first, because she was an infant.
Listen: Harold tells the story of the dramatic meeting where he first convinced his community and federal regulators that there was a cover-up of dangerous contamination at the abandoned fertilizer plant.
I ended up [enrolling in online classes] at Duke University (this was around 1993), compiling a list of chemicals that I found in the files, and that’s when I saw the long-term-short-term exposure from the waste pile in front of the house. And I took that to the coroner about my sister’s death. I didn’t tell him anything about the fertilizer plant, but he told me breathing that kind of stuff in is not good for women, especially during pregnancy. My Mom, during that pregnancy, it was the shipping season for that fertilizer operation. During that time, you couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of you from the dust. I looked at the deaths on that street – nobody died of natural causes. Everyone died from lung cancer or respiratory diseases. Then I looked the next street over. This one household, five sisters all had miscarriages. The more you peeled the onion, the more you’d find. It was like that for about the first year. It was amazing how it all unraveled. I had no intent of trying to start an organization. I knew nothing about the environmental movement or environmental justice, and it just ran over me like a Mac truck.
I contacted [former U.S. Senator Ernest Hollings'] office. His chief of staff was my center when I was the quarterback in high school, and I sent him a one-pager, and [the EPA] came out and did a site investigation. That warranted them to start the Superfund process.
I started organizing and talking to people in the community, telling them what I found. I was knocking on doors, talking to all the former workers – because everyone used to work at that fertilizer plant before it shut down in ‘84. At the first meeting, we had around 150 people. We had an African American mayor at that point, and he said, you never see that many black people in a room on one issue in Spartanburg. Because of the stuff that I had, people looked at me a source of information they would listen to.
ON HOW HE COULDN'T STOP
I was so obsessed. I was going everywhere, D.C. and back. I was sleeping in my car out behind the Russell Senate building. I was just so engulfed in finding out more about environmental justice and these impacts. I started seeing a pattern of people complaining about the same things. It was kind of frustrating, I just wanted people to admit that they were poisoning people with these chemicals. There really wasn’t a roadmap as to how you get someone to come in and start cleaning up.
ON THAT TIME HE TRIED TO BLEND INTO A GROUP OF BLACK MAYORS OF ATLANTA
I heard Al Gore was coming to Atlanta, and I drove there without knowing where he was going to be speaking. I ended up at the back of the restaurant he was coming to, where people were parking trying to see the motorcade when it came in. It just so happened that the black mayors of Atlanta had come in and started walking down there. So I had a suit on, and I just fell in with the group and walked in right behind them, and nobody questioned it or said a word. The closer I got to the door, my heart was jumping like crazy. They opened the door, everybody walked in, I walked in right behind them, sweating like a bull. The next thing you know, we were sitting in the back room where Gore and Donna Brazile came in, and the first person to greet Vice President Gore was me! I gave Donna Brazile a 15-second elevator pitch, and they actually stopped, and Vice President Gore shook my hand and talked for 15 seconds or so before going to the big room. And he told Donna to get my contact information. He told me to stay on it, that we need more people fighting this. Donna and I talked for a long time. At that point, people started wondering who I was and I got the heck out of there!
I invited the White House to come down to Spartanburg. The next thing you know, the White House accepted the invitation, and Congressman Clyburn came too.
ON HOW REGENESIS HAS IMPACTED THE PEOPLE IN HIS COMMUNITY
For the older population -- of my original board, everybody is deceased except for 1 of 13 people. They saw the change. This newer generation, those kids that are growing up in the community now, they have a different sense and feeling and expectation that kids before didn’t have. My age group, what they saw was crime and drugs and shootings and people not wanting to go near that community. Now you see those kids that are in school there, they have pride. That recreational facility, 10 years ago, you would not have a seen a white female on that street. Now they’re there in droves. We’ve been able to create opportunities to work, through the health facility and the other opportunities that have been created. The south side of Spartanburg was like an armpit, there was no pride whatsoever. And now that has definitely changed.