Environmental Justice group exposes polluted chemical sites at Capitol hearing

By Earnest McBride
Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor

More than a 100 residents from across the state filled the hearing room at the State Capitol as the discussion devoted to airing longstanding grievances over deadly chemical wastes – particularly creosote – left for decades in unsuspecting residential neighborhoods by large manufacturers like Kerr-McGee that have either packed up and gone or changed their names and continue to do business as usual.

State Representative Greg Holloway, chairman of the House Forestry Committee, called the hearing Monday afternoon to provide several

black community organizations a chance to report their problem in trying to get compensation equal to that provided white business under the EPA Superfund program.

Holloway said that he was concerned that no one in state government was giving any serious attention to the complaints from so many different communities. It is his aim to at least get the cases on record and to propose legislation that will put an end to the neglect of taxpaying Mississippians who are suffering and dying as a result of industrial wrongdoing, Holloway said.

Sherri Jones, the Hattiesburg-based organizer for the Coalition of Communities for Environmental Justice, said that several black residents of the Hub city are suffering from the destructive effects of creosote that has remained in their soil and water system since a Kerr-McGee-owned plant opened there in 1942. That plant closed in 1969, but the poisonous creosote remains to this day.

“We came here today to put our legislators on notice of what we believe to have been conspiracies for a number of years that have left our people in harm’s way,” Jones said. “In Columbus we have proven this to be a fact. Rev. (Steve) Jamison spent a lot of money for a professional assessment. Now the government has admitted that they did not do their job. And the chemical pollution is rampant there.”

Jamison, the public relations director for the community coalition, is pastor of the Maranatha Faith Center in Columbus that is on the brink of bankruptcy because of their decision to fight the EPA decision to ignore chemical pollutants remaining in the church soil.

“The land is still contaminated and our church is in bankruptcy because we’re trying to hold on to our lawsuit against Kerr-McGee and Tronox (a former subsidiary of Kerr-McGee) that is still in process. “The good news is this: Our lawsuit was a legal matter that we couldn’t deal with on our own accord. But now we’re dealing with the environmental aspects of the case. After 10 years of wrangling and spending about $35,000 of our own money to do the testing that proves our land was contaminated, the federal government and our own geologist lied and said it was not contaminated.  By spending our own money, we forced the EPA inspectors to conduct their tests. They have now admitted that the pollution is there. We are waiting for them to grant Superfund status to the property. They are now in the preliminary stage of their work. They can either clean it up or move us out and grant compensation as a result.”

The commonly labeled “Superfund” site, formally named the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Contamination and Liability Act, comes under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose agents oversee the cleanup and compensation schedules agreed to by polluting companies and the affected communities and individuals seeking redress and adequate compensation for the harm inflicted on them.

“In Hattiesburg’s case,” Jones pointed out, “the whites not only received a payday but also a tax relief as white leaseholders received reduced taxes while black leaseholders received property restrictions. Residents are still living in contamination while the community awaits the same institutions which allowed this travesty to return with a remedy.”

Leaders from what one trained investigator has called the “poisoned communities” are continuing as far back as 20 years or more. Beyond Columbus and Hattiesburg, the activists have exposed some of the deadliest chemical toxins found in the EPA’s Region 4, the six states in the Southeastern region of the USA.

Evangelist Charlotte Keys of Columbia has worked for more than two decades to obtain “environmental justice” in her community that was declared free of chemical pollution 20 years before after a purported Superfund cleanup.

Keys, the executive director of Jesus People Against Pollution, was one of the local fighters whose efforts reached all the way to the White House during the Bill Clinton Presidency. It was Clinton who took note of the disparity between white, black and Hispanic communities affected by chemical pollution. Clinton issued his executive order that called for  “Environmental Justice” in all communities plagued by deadly chemicals in the air, the soil and water.

Keys said that once she got into the routine of challenging both the EPA and the polluting companies, she began receiving death threats and her late nights were frequently plagued with harassing phone calls.

“I had an OSHA report that said that if a cloud of Phosphene had blown over Columbia High School, the children would have drowned in their own body fluids.”

The report also pointed out the many cancer-causing agents that lay exposed in the community, she said.

“We have many people who died in Columbia, Mississippi without a real, full health study. And we do not have justice because people needed access to environmental primary health care services and housing. People lived right up on the polluted soil with only a cyclone fence separating their homes from the Superfund cleanup site.”

Keys challenged the Superfund site located in Columbia to give fair treatment to poor African Americans and poor whites whose properties had been skirted by EPA agents, after many residents were not even considered for compensation for their medical and health problems caused by the pollution.

“What has happened over a long period of time is that many new communities have been awakened to the fact of environmental injustice in their own communities,” Keys said.

The Columbia Superfund site has been de-listed, Keys said, which in theory gives the area a clean bill of health, although she contends that the area is as chemically polluted as it was 20 years ago.

Deborah Conerly of Hattiesburg came late to the fight, saying that she only recently moved to Hattiesburg. But she is devoted to seeing the battle through to the end, she says.

“The citizens gave a very clear message to our representatives that we need some action,” Conerly said. “There’s been enough rhetoric. One of the things brought out in that hearing I found to be disturbing. Trudy Fisher (Department of Environmental Quality director) said that in Mississippi, someone selling a home or piece of property has no duty to report any contamination on the property. The person buying the property inherits that contamination and all the health issues that go with it. As the head of the department, why hasn’t the needed legislation been proposed by her office?”