Civil, construction, and environmental engineers are responsible for designing and creating infrastructure that allows our world to function. Building the society of tomorrow can come with big challenges, including ensuring all communities have a voice in the decision-making process and addressing adverse and disproportional high impacts to minority and low-income communities — also known as Environmental Justice (EJ).
Stantec is serving as the lead consultant for the team preparing National Environmental Policy Act documentation and preliminary designs for the $3 billion I-526 Lowcountry Corridor West Project in Charleston, South Carolina. In October 2022, the Federal Highway Administration approved the Final Environmental Impact Statement/Record of Decision for the project.
CCEE alum and advisory board member Ryan White, PE (BSCE 2000), Stantec’s Design Services Growth Leader for Southeast Transportation, serves as the co-leader for the Environmental Justice (EJ) Engagement Team tasked with engaging the four disproportionately impacted minority communities along the project corridor and developing the EJ Community Mitigation Plan (EJCMP), which includes an estimated $140 million in mitigation for the four communities.
We spoke with White to discuss his role on the EJ Engagement Team and how its mitigation plan seeks to address historic, current and future impacts caused by highway improvement projects. White will also give a presentation with Stantec Senior Transportation Planner LaTonya Derrick about environmental justice engagement and mitigation plan development on March 21 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Fitts-Woolard Hall Room 3301. More details about the presentation can be found here.
The answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What is the role of an EJ Engagement Team? Why is it important?
Executive Order 12898 directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse effects of their programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations to achieve equitable distribution of benefits and burdens — Environmental Justice.
Due to the anticipated scale of the disproportionately high and adverse impacts on minority and low-income communities as a result of the I-526 Lowcountry Corridor – West Project, it was determined that a group of engineering, planning and outreach specialists were needed to be added to the project team in order to ensure that there was a focus on engaging and receiving input specifically from residents of the EJ communities along the project corridor.
What does it mean to be a co-leader for the EJ Engagement Team?
A co-team lead structure was implemented to ensure adequate management of the team. The team had two focus areas: First, direct community engagement that included an on-going series of community meetings at various locations, community canvassing, a flyer box campaign, online outreach, a staffed community office and regularly scheduled meetings with the Community Advisory Council and, second, development of the mitigation for the impacts to the communities. This included identifying impacts and identifying, evaluating, and documenting recommendations to address the disproportionately high impacts.
Stantec Senior Transportation Planner LaTonya Derrick and I each managed a particular focus area and coordinated consistently to ensure residents were continuously engaged (even through the pandemic) and input was received, documented, and if possible, implemented. If requests from the public could not be implemented, a comprehensive response was prepared and provided back to the advisory council.
Can you tell me more about Stantec’s I-526 Lowcountry Corridor West Project in Charleston and what part you played as part of the EJ Engagement Team?
The I-526 Lowcountry Corridor West Project is a $3 billion project, led by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to upgrade an 8.5-mile-long segment of I-526 and a 3-mile segment of I-26 around Charleston. The project will add lanes along both interstates, reconfigure every interchange, including the I-26/I-526 interchange, which will include elevated collector-distributor lanes along I-526 and collector-distributor lanes along I-26. The 4,800-foot-long Westmoreland Bridge over the Ashley River will also be widened.
The EJ Engagement Team was responsible for ensuring EJ communities along the project corridor were actively engaged and informed off project activities, had a voice regarding addressing and mitigating impacts to their communities, and had a direct line of communication to SCDOT and Federal Highway Administration leadership via the Community Advisory Council.
What were some of the external factors that needed to be considered while working on this project?
There were several factors to consider: The social climate was extremely tense due to the Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston and the Emmanuel Church Massacre in Charleston. The communities are also being directly impacted by the construction of interstate highways for the third time since the inception of the interstate highway system. These impacts over the years have included residential, business, and recreational facility relocations, traffic noise, reduction of air quality, community segmentation, and reduction in property values.
There is discontent with the government based on a history of transportation infrastructure having a negative impact on the communities, and the communities are facing gentrification pressures due to limited land and increasing property costs in the Charleston region.
What kind of outreach/engagement did you participate in as the EJ Engagement team?
We established a community advisory council consisting of residents, business owners, and clergy from the impacted communities, which met nearly monthly — including during the pandemic.
Direct engagement included pop-up meetings, large scale community meetings, church attendance, a flyer box program, social media, community canvassing, direct mailings and a community office within walking distance of the communities and along a major transit route to ensure accessibility.
What was the mitigation plan that you came up with? How did you implement it?
The Community Mitigation Plan components are grouped into six “buckets:” (1) Education, (2) Quality of life, (3) Employment, (4) Recreation, (5), Community Outreach, and (6) Housing.
We recently entered the implementation phase. State, federal and local governments are in partnership with the Project Oversight Committee to ensure the commitments made in the EJ Mitigation Plan are implemented. Additional environmental studies are required for some of the components. Some components are actively being implemented, while others will be implemented over the next year. The majority of the mitigation is required to be completed before construction of the interstate improvements can begin.
We are utilizing a “PowerBI” program and data management tool to actively track the status and costs of the components of the EJCMP.
How can aspiring/future engineers engage in this kind of work? What are some potential pathways they could take?
I have a transportation engineering background (including a PE) and LaTonya has an environmental policy background. We both lead transportation projects through the Planning and Project Development phase which includes Environmental Review/Compliance, the development of alternatives and preliminary plans(roadway, structures, and hydraulics) and public involvement. This work is guided by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and subsequent state and federal environmental laws.