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Assessing the cumulative groundwater and health impact of facilities in the Lower Richland area of South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina

Featured image for the project, Assessing the cumulative groundwater and health impact of facilities in the Lower Richland area of South Carolina

The green forest of Lower Richland, interrupted by the Westinghouse nuclear fuel fabrication facility with the Columbia skyline in the background. Photo credit - High Flyer

The Lower Richland community in Columbia, South Carolina, is surrounded by facilities (fuel fabrication facility, superfund site, resale of toxic equipment facility, coal burning power plant, paper mill and multiple landfills) that bring pollution to their groundwater. This community is land rich but cash limited, predominantly Black, and reliant on private wells for water consumption. These residential private wells are not tested by these facilities. There is a lack of communication among the facilities, the local government, the regulatory agencies, and the community members that live near them. This project will look at the cumulative hazard risks that Westinghouse, a nuclear fuel fabrication facility, a Wateree coal power plant, International Paper mill, and the International Processing Plant brings to Lower Richland groundwater. The results of this project will be used to determine if there is pollution in the residential wells, and what is the pollution. This project will help community members learn not only about the content of their water, but also the scientific and regulatory processes for groundwater remediation.


The Lower Richland community is located in Richland county, South Carolina. It is a predominantly Black, low-income rural community. Richland county is home to 415,000 people. This is the ancestral land of Pine Hill Indian Tribe, documented as former residents of present day Fort Jackson. Pine Hill Indian Tribe’s presence is recorded in colonial and pre-colonial records as part of Cofitachequi and has a rich colonial relationship documented in the Journals for the Commission of Indian Trade and the establishment of Fort Congaree. Lower Richland is filled with historical, archeological, and natural resources. It is home to archeological sites such as the Denley Cemetery, an African American burial site, possibly used by enslaved African Americans and the Native American Green Hill Mound. Mounds in South Carolina date back to 1200 to 1500,  and are thought to have been used as cultural, ceremonial, or burial sites. Both the Congaree National Park and the Congaree River are located in Lower Richland.

Unfortunately, the historical and natural resources and the health of this community are often at risk from pollution due to nearby facilities. Lower Richland is also the home of the Waste Management on Screaming Eagle Road and the Old McGraw Dump site, unregulated dumpsites, a superfund site, the International Processing Plant, Sylvamo-previously International Paper Company, the Wateree Station coal power plant, and Westinghouse a nuclear fuel fabrication facility.  These facilities have poor safety practices, are in violation of regulatory requirements, and discharge pollutants into the air, groundwater, and surface water connected to the Congaree and Wateree River. Most of the residents in Lower Richland depend on private wells and are not consulted or informed when there is a hazardous spill.  Community organizers from the local Sierra club and the NAACP in Richland county, South Carolina, and the Pine Hill Indian Tribe have been fighting to protect Lower Richland from more pollution for decades.  This project will spread awareness, increase collaboration, and help community leaders enhance their advocacy. The community is trying to expand the current coalition of regional activists for this project.

In 2019, Westinghouse requested a 40-year extension to their license to the Nuclear Regulation Committee. This means they will not be required to take public comments for 40 years. In the past, the permits were only issued for 20 years, which is already too long of a period without community input. This year the International Processing Plant also announced their expansion. The Wateree coal power plant has requested a permit for the continuation of mercury and arsenic releases to river waters already with high concentrations. The International Paper Company has been in the area for 40 years with limited communication with nearby residents. The community is working with Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) because TEX can arm the community with the data and facts needed to engage in dialogue and hold the polluting facilities accountable.  In the long-term, we hope this sets up a precedent for how industry in Lower Richland should interact with the community at large.

Learn more about the community’s response to the Westinghouse 40-year license request in this newspaper article by Sammy Fetwell, a reporter from South Carolina. The community is continuing to have local meetings to discuss various actions to the licensing process.  The Sierra Club Midlands group has more information on the impact of the Wateree power plant here.

A map showing the relative locations of International Paper, Coal Powered Filmworks, Westinghouse Electric Co LLC, and Richland County C&D Landfill Drop-Off Center


The Project

As the pandemic has shown, living in a contaminated environment can damage the immune system and hinder the body from defending itself if exposed to SARS-Covid-2. The Lower Richland community has their water resources continuously being polluted by the facilities in their land without being properly communicated the damages these bring to their health and natural resources. For example, during the 50 years that  the Westinghouse nuclear fuel fabrication facility has been in Columbia, there have been leaks within the facility and little to no communication to the community on the extent and mitigation process. The Wateree power plant is one of the oldest power plants in the state and has contributed to the mercury and arsenic pollution of the Wateree River.

The environmental reports from these facilities and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control  (DHEC) are often complicated to understand and difficult to find on their websites. Most residents in Lower Richland lack internet access and while some public meetings are announced in the state newspaper, a lot of residents cannot pay for the yearly subscription. In order for community members to know if their drinking water wells are safe, they need to become aware of the extent of exposure from cumulative pollution.

We would like to check the environmental reports from these facilities and collect groundwater quality in private wells and create a Hazard Assessment for Lower Richland. This assessment would look at the public health & groundwater risks from these facilities. The hazard assessment will be written in an accessible manner and used to educate the population about the potential risks to their drinking water, and host public community meetings educating the community about their rights and resources to stop more damage to the environment and health. In the end, the results will show if the cumulative pollution has impacted some of the private wells, what these wells should be tested for, and show which facility is polluting the most. This will result in an educated and resilient community that can hold the polluters in their land accountable and stop expansion or new facilities from coming to their county.


Timeline and Milestones

  • Work with community leaders to compile reports of polluting facilities. Month 1.
  • Hazard Assessment looking at the cumulative impact on groundwater. Month 2-5.
  • Collect groundwater data in missing locations. Ongoing
  • An accessible risk assessment based on environmental reports from the polluting facilities in Lower Richland. – Hazard Assessment. Month 6-10.
  • Outreach in the form of monthly public meetings to present results in an accessible manner. Ongoing
  • Public meetings to educate community members on steps they can take to prevent future pollution, setting up a process to make the polluting facilities accountable, and how to protect themselves. Month 10-12.

This project is expected to last 12 months and will start as soon as possible.

Project Team

Community Leads

Virginia Sanders is a National Sierra Club Organizer working in the Richland and Marion Counties of South Carolina in the Healthy Communities Campaign. Her work to further environmental justice includes fighting for her community’s right to access clean water and air. Virginia has also organized bus riders in the city of Columbia to advocate for improvements to transit services as well as investments in walking and biking infrastructure. She serves on the Richland County conservation commission as well, all in an effort to improve the quality of life for the people of Richland and Marion Counties.

To learn more about Virginia, please visit the Anthropocene Alliance page on her work:


Priscilla Preston is Chair  of the Midlands Group of the South Carolina Sierra Club and Vice Chair of the South Carolina Chapter.  She is active with the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) South Carolina Advocacy Team and the Carolinas Peace Resources Center Savannah River Site (SRS) Working Group.   Priscilla affirms the  Sierra Club statement ” to advance climate solutions and ensure everyone has access to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment ” with special effort given to issues happening in South Carolina and the Midlands.   That involves  opposing producing plutonium pits at SRS and understanding the environmental impact of TPBAR production at Wesdyne at the Westinghouse location as well as the many other areas of concern at Westinghouse.


Ms. Joyce O. Delk was born and raised in Lower Richland County.  Since 2012, she has been promoting the Richland penny-tax program to improve dirt roads and improvement of transportation. She has been an advocate for her fellow community members and pushed for the penny-tax funding to be distributed with their initial goals. More on her work with the penny-tax projects can be found in an article by The State newspaper. Ms. Delk has also volunteered in Richland county as a poll worker for the past seven years. She is a member of the Reckoning Crew, which promotes presidential candidates. She serves in her community when needed and in whatever capacity she can.


Pamela Greenlaw is a former public school educator. For the past twenty years, she served in leadership for the Midlands Group of the South Carolina Sierra Club. Currently, she focuses on educating various audiences for action on wide-ranging environmental threats, such as, toxicity in plastics, the climate changing petrochemical industry, and the out-of-control nuclear industry.  Ms. Greenlaw believes everyone has the right to unspoiled resources of nature which are necessary for a good quality of life.



Sheelah Bearfoot is a program manager at Anthropocene Alliance. She graduated with a degree in Genetics and Plant Biology from UC Berkeley in 2016. She’s Chiricahua Apache, and worked at the Native American Health Center in SF for two years as a diabetes educator before starting a master’s in Environmental Health Science at Hopkins, where she continued her focus on Indigenous health disparities.


Community Science Fellow

Eimy Bonilla is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Modeling group at Harvard University working with Dr. Loretta Mickley. Eimy models atmospheric chemistry and transport of fire emissions to better understand the fate of pollutants affecting air quality and climate change across South America. She graduated from Tufts University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Engineering and worked for two years in a remediation consulting company before starting graduate school. She is excited to be working with the Lower Richland community and connect them to scientists who can answer some long standing questions.

Scientist Wanted

The Lower Richland community leaders want to understand the cumulative effects of pollution in their groundwater. Especially, looking at the International Processing Plant, International Paper Company, the Wateree Station coal power plant, and Westinghouse facilities and their pollution which are impacting private drinking water wells.

We are looking for 1-2 scientists. One scientist that has experience making Hazard Assessment reports and one scientist with knowledge on environmental policies. Ideally, the scientist with policy experience should be local to South Carolina or work with similar environmental policies and environmental justice communities. Remote engagement is okay. Both scientists should have the skills below.


Desired skills and qualifications:

  • Experience, or desire to participate in community education, outreach, and engagement.
  • Strong public speaking, listening, and collaboration skills.
  • Knowledge and respect for indigenous cultures and worldviews.
  • Expertise in connecting science with local concerns.
  • Experience working with multiple sources of pollution.
  • Experience with environmental justice projects and/or policies.
  • Ability to visit the community in-person, if possible.


Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Interested in volunteering as a scientist? Apply now!

Collaborating Organization(s)

Sierra Club: The Sierra Club is the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club has evolved into an organization that works to advance climate solutions and ensure everyone has access to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment.

By centering our key principles of equity, justice and inclusion in every aspect of our work, we aim to transform ourselves and build a healthy, welcoming and sustainable community that celebrates people from all walks of life.


Anthropocene Alliance is the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice composed of 70 communities in 22 states and Puerto Rico. They assist communities in understanding and addressing the impacts of flooding, water contamination, air pollution, and wildfires. The Anthropocene Alliance’s goal is to bring frontline communities together and amplify their voices so they can have safe, healthy, and equitable communities.