Mary Duckett: Clean water is a basic human right

May 26th, 2020

This is an excerpt from the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Upstate Advocate, Upstate Forever’s twice yearly publication sponsored by Pacolet Milliken Enterprises. To read the entire newsletter, click here. If you’d like to be added to our mailing list to receive future issues, please email

Photo courtesy of Community Journals

Mary Duckett is a lifelong activist and resident of Greenville’s Southernside community. As president of Southernside Neighborhoods in Action, she has joined community leaders and environmental justice advocates to call for the cleanup of toxic coal tar along the Reedy River, the left-behind results of a manufactured gas plant in the area that closed in 1952. While this contamination has not yet been resolved, Mary has been instrumental in bringing this environmental justice issue to light and engaging the community to ask Duke Energy to clean up the former gas plant site on Bramlett Road.

I was raised right there in the middle of the coal ash contamination in Southernside. When we were growing up, we were told not to play in it — but just because it made a mess. If you walked in the coal tar you were told not to walk in the house because it would get all on your clothes and your mom didn’t want that tracked through the house. We played in it anyway.

People actually ate fish out of the Reedy, too. That was our way of survival. When I was growing up, there were hogs, pigs, cows, chickens, you name it, down in that area along the river. We ate the eggs, the hogs, drank the milk from those cows — and I’m sure that all of that was contaminated, too, because they drank the water out of the tributary down there.

We didn’t know then that the coal tar was dangerous. There was no one checking on the environment at that time, especially since ours was a neighborhood of people of color in segregated times. There was no one around to tell us, “This is hazardous to your health.” Southernside was an underserved neighborhood, and our area was the dumping ground.

But now we know. There is a massive number of Black people that lived in this area who have died or fought cancer that lived right in that contaminated area. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.

But I’ve always been vocal. It’s in my DNA to be vocal. I had many mentors that taught me how to be vocal. And I’ve been saying that mess needs to be cleaned up for some time. I want to make sure that the next generation doesn’t come up in the same environment that I did. It’s important that we make sure that the quality of life for our youth is one that is going to enhance their lifestyle and their longevity. I want the children to be healthy.

The good news is we have gotten the community’s attention. There is a new president here for Duke Energy who is adamant about working with us through SCDHEC and some other neighborhood entities to get that cleaned up. As a matter of fact, they are drilling some more wells right now in the area where I live and grew up.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and this mess didn’t happen overnight, but I have hope. I want the young people to have a chance at a brighter future and an environment that is safe and healthy. We are on our way.

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