Reverend Charles Utley, born in Waynesboro, GA, is the Associate Director and Environmental Justice Campaign Director at BREDL (Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League). He spent all of his childhood and young adult life in the Hyde Park Community, set next to a toxic waste site in an industrial area of Augusta, GA. When he left for Vietnam in 1966, his parents started organizing their community to improve their neighborhood with The Hyde and Aragon Park Improvement Committee, the oldest organized community according to IRS records. They fought for public water and sewer systems, paved streets and streetlights, spearheaded by Mary L. Utley, Charles Utley‘s mother.
‘It would be years later after all of these necessary things were achieved and my parents were deceased, I succeeded my mother’s role as community president. It was in the mid-1970. We found out that there was contamination in our community from a wood treatment plant (Southern Wood Piedmont Company). From this point on we were faced with cleaning up our community’, Utley writes in our interview.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted many studies in the area that resulted in seeking ways to get the community relocated. After approximately 25 years of community organizing, the Hyde Park Community is now finally being relocated. Reverend Utley helped organizing his community around this very topic.
Any movement has to deal with setbacks from time to time. The Hyde Park Community around Rev. Utley had to fight with constant disagreements of the commissioner concerning the severity of the contamination – even though it had been proven to be contaminated by Brownfield Projects by the EPA. Officials refused to take action for over 30 years. The community had not been notified about any environmental issues in their homes, so they decided to do their own investigation.
‘The local officials did very little in our fight to provide assistance with our efforts; however, the community was able to receive two Brownfields Pilot projects without the assistance of the city of Augusta. Additional assistance came from EPA and ATSDR (Agency of Toxic Substance and Disease Registrar) who provided us with a health study that was conducted by our local health department.
The city engineering department needed a place for a retention pond for water runoff and to assist the residents by using Hyde Park for the project’.
Since the community did not receive any help from the city and has been exposed to contamination for decades, there are many community members who are sick, mainly with cancer related issues and respiratory problems. Even 40 years after Utley took over as community president, issues are found among Hyde Park residents.
‘Our fight is a continuous fight because we have not reached full fruition. There are many residents who have not been compensated for their property who are homeowners. Therefore, the community has not given up but has continued to fight until all of our rights as citizens are received, which also includes long term health care’.
Media coverage was one of the primary ways the community was able to get their story out to the public. The response to the community has been one of the things that caused the relocation to take place. They have received help from local and regional organizations for their plight, which includes the book Polluted Promises by Dr. Melissa Checker, and two documentaries.
Charles Utley is the Associate Director and Environmental Justice Campaign Director at BREDL. He says that BREDL has been a supporter for his community from the beginning of their struggle. They provided assistance with their staff, community programs and workshops. They are involved until the whole community has received the justice it deserves.
For people who want to help their community, he recommends staying focused on the major issue(s) and to understand that if you do nothing, then nothing will be done for your cause. Therefore, each individual in the community must be committed to the cause. The Hyde Park Community needed assistance in getting the word out to other organizations, to tell them that the struggle is not over and that their assistance is still needed. They sent letters to The Richmond County Commissions and Mayor Harry Davis, urging that the issues still needed to be addressed. But the fight goes on as homeowners have yet to receive the just compensation that was promised by officials.
At the end of our interview, Rev. Utley said that the vision that his parents had for the Hyde Park Community was what formed his organizing ground. Community organizing has taught him that success may not come immediately but that being persistent in your work will pay off eventually.
‘Above all, you must put your trust in Jesus Christ’.
Look up BREDL at http://www.bredl.org/ and see if there is a Chapter in your area. Get the help you and your community deserve with organizations like BREDL and CHEJ!