The Lanxess chemical plant near Charleston’s Rosemont community once had robust community engagement | Photos by Ruta Smith

After a devastating explosion at what was then known as the Albright and Wilson chemical plant near Charleston’s Rosemont community in 1991, plant operators committed to several outreach efforts and community programs and warning systems to foster a more open relationship between Rosemont residents and the chemical plant. 

S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard said the Lanxess plant’s community outreach programs fell by the waysid

But since then, the plant has changed hands several times, leaving many of these programs on the back burner, according to former plant employee and S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. But in the wake of a leak of toxic phosphorus trichloride gas on May 24, Gilliard —  who spent more than 20 years working at the plant — is sounding the alarm. 

“We started creating a lot of outreach programs — scholarships, public spaces for children to learn, job opportunities — everything in the area of business and economics,” he said. “But these things fell by the wayside once all the original workers left, including myself.”

The now German-owned Lanxess plant, purchased in 2018, recently conducted an internal investigation into why the toxic gas leaked. During that incident, workers were clearing out lines when a leak of phosphorus trichloride occurred in a secondary containment building, according to a company statement. A November 2019 chemical leak and fire at the plant required Rosemont residents to take shelter in their homes and shut down Interstate 26. It also led the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to conduct comprehensive plant air inspections that continued into 2022. DHEC didn’t cite the company with any violations following the inspections, nor did it cite Lanxess after the May 24 leak, according to DHEC media relations director Ron Aiken. 

“The [May 24] release was contained on site and there are no known injuries, exposures or environmental impacts as a result of the incident,” Aiken said.

Site manager Michael Jansen told the City Paper the recent gas leak was minor and didn’t require sounding an alarm to warn Rosemont residents of the issue. The Charleston Fire Department was called, but a fire crew wasn’t dispatched, according to officials. 

But Gilliard said, even though the issue was minor, small mishaps can lead to large accidents. The 1991 explosion killed nine workers and injured dozens and rattled windows downtown. This, he said, makes community engagement and trust all the more important. Lately, he said, that hasn’t been happening. 

“I always felt that working closely with the president in the neighborhood association was the genesis of any type of progress they wanted to make or communicating any issues that would impact the other surrounding communities,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a dialogue, but it’s another entirely to make progress — you can meet and greet all day long, but nothing will benefit the community.” 

The sentiment is felt by residents, too, especially when it comes to safety concerns.

“They’re supposed to have better safety protocols, but you know, you always got the jack that takes the shortcuts — ‘We do this every day; we know what we’re doing’ — that’s when the mishaps happen,” said Rosemont resident Arthur Edwards. “Come on, man, you have to be a little bit more considerate.” 

That point is echoed by DHEC.

“We have found that companies often benefit from building positive relationships with their neighbors,” DHEC said in a statement. “DHEC works through programs like EJ Strong (chscp.co/EJ-strong) to encourage both communities and industries to work collaboratively to address each other’s concerns.

Lanxess said Rosemont residents were notified of the leak, but some said they didn’t know about the incident until City Paper reporters called them. During the 2019 incident, an alarm was sounded that woke residents up at 1:50 a.m.

“When we heard the bell that night, we knew something went on at the plant,” said Rosemont resident Luvenia Brown. “When it goes off, it is startling … I think it rang until the fire department arrived, and it rang for several minutes.”

“I still believe somebody should have rode around like they did in ‘91 with a horn,” Edwards added. “Because even though the sirens went off, the sirens go off all the time — the first Tuesday and the first Saturday of every month at 11 o’clock. And sometimes, we have a misfire, like, the sirens just go off and nothing is wrong.”

The false alarms and consistent testing makes it difficult for residents to know when something is seriously wrong at the plant, Edwards and Gilliard said, an issue that clearer communication — including cell-phone alerts — could resolve. 

And the communication issues and safety threats could be set to get worse, Gilliard said, as the massive new Magnolia development is set to add enough homes for thousands of new residents. Magnolia is to be built in an area formerly contaminated by chemical and industrial plants that once lined the Ashley River. 

“It’s a huge new project that’s going to take place,” Gilliard said, “And I told them that before this development is complete, this relationship between surrounding communities ought to be more intact, more viable than it is now.”


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