Engaging a Community around a Former Industrial Site: My Experience in Rocky Mount, NC

By Jimena Perez-Viscasillas,
MEM Student Assistant

Bird’s eye view of Rocky Mount, NC

Since moving to Durham from Puerto Rico to start my Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke, one of the most interesting elements of North Carolina I have observed has been the evident history behind its local buildings. Six months ago, I did not know what a “brownfield” was. Now, since working with the Community Engagement Core (CEC) of Duke’s Superfund Center, I find myself identifying potential brownfields everywhere I go.

A brownfield is defined by the EPA as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” In other words, a brownfield is a property that has been abandoned because it is or just might be contaminated. Here in North Carolina, some of these brownfields include old brick factories many of which have been beautifully restored and “recycled” into modern use as malls, community centers, apartment complexes, etc.

As a student assistant to the CEC, I am working with Liz Shapiro-Garza, Catherine Kastleman, and Bryan Luukinen to engage stakeholders in the town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Our goal is to provide information to the public about the environmental health concerns associated with local brownfields, and to facilitate their participation in the decision-making that goes into the development of these properties.

Soil capping at the Planters Oil Mill site

In November of 2017, local officials Kellianne Davis and Forrest Melvin from Rocky Mount’s office of Community Development organized a series of town hall meetings. The goal of the meetings was to inform the public about the City’s new strategic development plan and to receive input from the community on the proposed plan. This also specifically included time to hear about the community’s wishes for one former industrial (a brownfield site) called the Planters Oil Mill site.

Planters Oil Mill – historic photo
November 2017 Rocky Mount Community Planning meeting

I had the privilege to attend one of these meetings with the CEC to present information on the management and environmental health status of this site. The Planter’s Oil Mill property was historically home to a factory of the same name that produced cottonseed oil, fertilizer, and other products at various points in time. Due to the chemicals used during production, after a devastating fire destroyed most of the factory’s structures in 1983, the site fell into disuse and was classified as a brownfield. In 2011, midway through the process of remediation (cleanup) by the EPA, funding ran out, resulting in the partial capping with clean soil of 4.5 acres of the full 7.3-acre-site.

As part of our presentation, we offered examples of how other towns around the US have dealt with similar situations with brownfields. Also joining us at the meeting were UNC Greensboro graduate student Darien Cobb, who researched and presented information on the history of the property, and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Student Emily Jewell. A representative from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality came to an evening meeting on the same day to further illuminate and describe cleanup that had been done at the site and respond to residents’ questions.


Representatives from Duke Superfund and Rocky Mount Community Planning at the November 2017 meeting

The meetings were tremendously insightful. I was surprised and delighted to see how even at a morning meeting during a weekday, members of the community showed up to participate in the betterment of their town, ask questions, and voice their concerns. After the town hall presentations, attendees were encouraged to participate in a more conversational gathering held immediately after to discuss their thoughts and give suggestions based on what had just been discussed. Hot spots and areas for improvement were identified throughout the Priority Zone neighborhoods. The community also expressed a need for additional community/youth centers and a local grocery store, and residents seemed interested in exploring these and other possible uses for the Planters Oil Mill property.

Meeting attendees also expressed the need for more housing and services for the elderly. Safe public housing has been a prevalent need in Rocky Mount since flooding several years ago destroyed many of its public housing buildings. Earlier this week, we learned that after the community conversations about redevelopment, Rocky Mount officials were able to use some of the information provided by the CEC to propose to the state of North Carolina the possibility of redeveloping several of the city’s brownfields, located in non-flood zones, into safe spaces for community housing.

Nonetheless, community members remain concerned about the safety of the area’s soil, for which the CEC will continue researching and producing informational materials to help educate and inform decision-making, and connect individuals to expert networks and resources. This semester promises to be a busy one for the CEC and the City of Rocky Mount.

For more information on the CEC, visit our webpage over at https://sites.nicholas.duke.edu/superfund/community-engagement-core/