Jump to main content.

Public Involvement Network News

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Partnership Strategies Used to Rebuild a Community

Karen Sprayberry, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control

In the wee hours of January 6, 2005, a Norfolk Southern train hit parked rail cars outside the Avondale Mills complex in downtown Graniteville, South Carolina. Three chemicals were released: liquid chlorine, kaolin, and diesel fuel. One of the rail cars leaked an estimated 60 tons of chlorine that spread rapidly into the community. As a result, 9 people died, more than 500 people sought medical attention at area hospitals and physicians' offices, and approximately 5,000 individuals were evacuated from their homes for approximately 10 days. Within those 10 days, state and federal government emergency response staff, along with railroad staff, would work to contain and address the spills, monitor the air, and ensure that when those residents returned to their homes, they would be safe. When it was time to return to their homes, community involvement staff would be available to assist with this. Approximately 875 facilities (mostly homes) received air monitoring before citizens were allowed to reenter. It was an intense time for everyone involved.

After the initial emergency response, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) staff was contacted by a former board member asking us to come and meet with her and other community leaders to address some of the environmental and health concerns they and others in the community had. Staff initially met with this group on February 16, 2005. During the initial meetings, DHEC staff listened to their concerns. Their concerns not only dealt with environmental and health concerns, but quality of life concerns as well . and they wondered if they trusted what DHEC said in response to them.

The group decided they would call themselves the Graniteville Community Coalition; DHEC staff would facilitate the meetings, and provide technical/administrative support. The initial group consisted of local pastors, a school principal, a representative of the local water company, and other interested parties. DHEC asked for the GCC's assistance with holding a series of meeting where the appropriate individuals would come to address their concerns. The GCC agreed to help promote and coordinate the meetings; a partnership was formed. Three public meetings were held within one-week. The same questions/answers that members of the GCC asked were put into a handout and were discussed during these meetings. It was important to DHEC that as many people be given an opportunity to hear the same message . the food they eat, the water they drink, and the air they breath is all safe Although not all the concerns were addressed, an initial step had been taken to meet with the public and give them an opportunity to express themselves.

A few weeks after those meetings, the GCC held a debriefing meeting. At the next meeting, the GCC worked on their mission statement, value statement, and their goals. Another public meeting was held by DHEC, and again the GCC assisted with promoting and coordinating the meeting. The GCC saw that most concerns were being addressed.

However, one concern that was not being addressed was the mental health aspect. Being from a small town, where people had great pride, a lot of those individuals were not interested in going to a "mental health" facility to discuss their deepest fears. The GCC partnered with another group in the community to coordinate a picnic, where the University of South Carolina's Social Work Department (USC) was brought in to assist. This picnic provided a fun, family atmosphere while allowing all attendees to tell their stories to be published in a book prepared by USC; thereby giving trained staff an opportunity to offer follow-up to those in need. The event was a huge success; DHEC staff began to see the GCC take ownership of their events. As requested during the public meetings, DHEC set-up and maintained a health registry and held a health evaluation clinic for those most impacted.

In the fall, DHEC staff assisted the GCC with submitting an application for an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant. The GCC received the grant.

They will use the money to conduct three workshops on the following topics:

  1. Environmental Concerns that Pertain to Chlorine;
  2. Health Concerns that Pertain to Chlorine; and,
  3. Transporting Toxic Chemicals/Emergency Response.

On the 1-year anniversary of the train wreck, one of the members of the GCC coordinated a candlelight vigil and a ceremony that many of the citizens attended. A special song was written to commemorate that day.

Throughout and still to this day, members of the GCC strive to address issues that pertain to race, class, and basic distrust of each other, state government, and the train company. Although the health and environmental departments are housed together, technically they work separately. However, during this exercise the two came together to work as one. This has been a challenge at times, but we have worked together to resolve the discrepancy. DHEC staff has worked hard to build capacity, develop a relationship, and to maintain the partnership that was formed with these local leaders. DHEC staff has used the golden rule of risk communication - provide the right message, at the right time, to the right people. In a time when everything seems to be going wrong, this partnership seems to still be going right.

This case study was discussed at the 2006 EPA Community Involvement Conference & Training. E-mail Karen Sprayberry (spraybkj@dhec.sc.gov) for more information.

Top of page

Local Navigation

Jump to main content.