Just beyond the Rosemont neighborhood sits the 189-acre Magnolia project space with any planned development raising many questions in the Charleston community since the early 2000s | Photo by Steve Aycock

A former industrial site in the Charleston Neck area along the Ashley River is a step closer to becoming the city’s largest commercial and residential development since Daniel Island was annexed three decades ago.

Construction at the 189-acre Magnolia project, first envisioned in the early 2000s, could begin within two years now that owner Highland Resources, based in Houston, recently entered into a partnership with Portman Holdings in Atlanta.

“We have found the right partner, and they are spending a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to get up to speed,” Clark Davis, Highland’s CEO, recently told The Post and Courier. Ambrish Baisiwala, Portman’s chairman and CEO, told the newspaper, “For us, this is an ideal project with an ideal partner.” The project, he said, is “a game changer” for Charleston.

When completed, the Magnolia project, much smaller than the 4,000-acre Daniel Island, could nonetheless have the same population — 10,000 residents. The developer plans to squeeze this between the Ashley River and Interstate 26, just below the tiny Rosemont community off the King Street Extension.

The land is known for three industrial sites: Koppers, a former wood treatment facility; and two former fertilizer plants, Columbia Nitrogen and Ashepoo Phosphate. They are currently managed under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Federal Superfund Program with support from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) Federal Superfund and Brownfields programs. Significant environmental remediation work has occurred at the sites, but not all of the work is completed, said Ron Aiken, DHEC’s media relations director. 

For years, the plants polluted the soil with lead, creosote and other toxins. Lead raises concerns at homesites because it can cause neurological damage, especially in children. The sites have undergone a $75 million remediation effort to make the land suitable for commercial and residential use, Magnolia spokesman Jonathan Scott said. That work involved removing contaminated soil, installing a fabric barrier over an area the size of 34 football fields and placing on top of that barrier 13,000 dump-truck loads of clean soil. 

Environmentalist wonders if site is safe

While DHEC has provided oversight of the cleanup, “some additional cleanup of these properties is needed to support the intended reuse,” Aiken said. Nevertheless, Jennifer Wright, professor of psychology at the College of Charleston and co-director of the Charleston Climate Coalition, asked whether the site is suitable for a development with a hotel, offices and retail shops. A soil cap on the site could deteriorate over time, she said. “So what does that mean to a community living on top of it?” she asked.

Wright admitted she does not know much about the development. “But certainly if history repeats itself, [the toxins] will find [their] way into the water in ways we can’t anticipate,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how they are selling it in terms of hiding the fact that there is such close exposure to toxic chemicals.”

Scott said, during the construction process “if we have to dig beneath the cap for any reason … that soil will be remediated.”

The nearby troubled chemical plant

The property is also within a mile of the troubled Lanxess chemical plant where large amounts of toxic chemicals are handled on site, including trainloads of chlorine. The plant has had a series of mishaps over the years, including a minor release of toxic gas in late May 2020 and a June 17, 1991, explosion that killed nine workers and injured dozens when the plant was then owned by Albright & Wilson.

Wright also expressed concerns about air pollution from the chemical plant.

In the wake of the November 2019 release of gasses at Lanxess, DHEC conducted comprehensive air inspections on March 10, 2020, and March 12, 2022. A risk management program inspection was also conducted on Feb. 27, 2019. Following those inspections, DHEC didn’t cite the company with any violations.

Courtesy Magnolia

Since the plant’s risk management plan was submitted in 2018, DHEC is aware of one accident that occurred within the past five years, Aiken said. The incident occurred May 22, 2019, and involved a chlorine leak that injured several employees. “There were no known offsite impacts,” he said.  

The risk management plan includes a worst-case scenario that assesses the offsite consequences of what “may or may not” occur in the unlikely event of a catastrophic accident, Aiken said. The worst-case scenario document can be viewed by the public. Publicizing its contents, however, is prohibited by federal law due to the sensitive nature of the document, he added. A formal written request to DHEC is required to view the risk management report.

Fifteen years ago, Charleston developer Robert Clement represented the previous Magnolia owners, Ashley I and Ashley II. The 2008 recession canceled the project, but while speaking before the city’s planning commission in 2007, Clement said: “If a tragedy happens at [the plant], it is not a Magnolia concern or a Rosemont concern, it would be an entire community concern, based on which way the wind is blowing.” Clement, president of CC&T Real Estate Services, is not currently involved with the Magnolia project. 

Magnolia spokesperson Scott said the current Magnolia owners haven’t seen the Lanxess risk management plan to understand the risk assessment or be in a position to comment about it.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, whose district includes the chemical plant, said, “I am surprised the developer didn’t have a comment on this most important issue! I’m quite sure one will be forthcoming because they should have been made aware of this report!”

The Neck’s long history

Scores of plantations once lined the Ashley and Cooper rivers in the Neck area. During the Revolutionary War, British troops fortified the narrowest portion of the Neck. Similarly, during the Civil War, the narrowest portion of the Neck served as the battlefront and encampments for Union and Confederate troops.

For more than a century, the Neck area had been considered an important, if undesirable, place to work. Following the Civil War, phosphate was discovered on both sides of the Ashley, creating a boom for Charleston’s struggling post-war economy. Eventually, as phosphate was discovered in other areas, phosphate mining diminished locally. However, the phosphate ore was still brought to the Neck for processing to sustain Charleston’s fertilizer industry. The Koppers wood treatment plant was also another major polluter in the Neck area.

Currently, the site is flat with an unobstructed view of the river for motorists speeding along the interstate. Over time, Magnolia is expected to drastically alter that vista. Some of the tallest buildings in the city, amid a hotel, shops, parks and a marina, are slated to be built there, Scott said. Before any of it rises out of the ground, however, the developers plan to create a 24-acre waterfront park as a public amenity, he said.

Scott said the developers have donated land to the nearby Monrovia Union Cemetery to expand it. It is the largest African-American cemetery along the river’s marshy bank. Highland Resources also has committed $500,000 for a community center in Rosemont, Scott said. Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell and the Rosemont neighborhood suggested the donation, he said. Rosemont, which has 320 residents, will be joined with Magnolia via the existing Hagood Street, he added.

Long-time Rosemont resident Arthur “Arby” Edwards, said the last time the community met with the developers was before the pandemic. Edwards, parliamentarian of the Rosemont Neighborhood Association, said he opposes the plan to connect Rosemont with Magnolia. Motorists might “get lost, and they will end up riding through Rosemont,” he said. “We used to be unknown, but now everybody knows about Rosemont.”

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