April 26, 2013 10:45:16 AM
Local and state officials updated Ward 4 residents about measures they are taking to improve conditions on 14th Avenue while fielding questions about what still has to be addressed during a community meeting Thursday the Columbus Municipal Complex.
Environmental Protection Agency Superfund program representative Charles King said he is collaborating with the city on a project that calls for excavating a pathway for a widened drainage ditch on 14th Avenue to create a retention pond, which would prevent water that mixes with toxins from the former Kerr-McGee plant site from overflowing into residents' yards during heavy rains.
He said $800,000 of the estimated $1.2 million project is being funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while the city is contributing the $400,000 balance. King said the EPA is contributing in-kind services as well.
City engineer Kevin Stafford, public works director Mike Pratt, Columbus Light and Water General Manager Todd Gale were also on hand to discuss what they've done to facilitate improved sewage and drainage and what they plan to do in the coming months. They also encouraged residents to call their respective departments and have employees look at how contamination, sewage and drainage issues are affecting their individual properties.
Memphis Town Community Action Group chair Rev. Steve Jamison said the area has been designated as an environmental justice community site as a result of its deteriorating state. Since then, he said, efforts to communicate Ward 4 concerns to Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to facilitate rehabilitation of the area have started to bear fruit.
"Our relationship has been very good," Jamison said. "It's important we understand how effective the Superfund process can be...If we can continue to work together we can make the progress we need to get the city on the right track."
City federal programs director Travis Jones was also on hand to inform citizens about applying for a $400,000 community development block grant that would further address sewage inadequacies. If that grant is approved by the Mississippi Development Authority, the city would match a $200,000 award from MDA to make those improvements.
Officials said they plan to continue their pursuit of more grant funding to correct the conditions in the area, but most in attendance were critical during a lengthy question-and-answer session, many asking when city workers would address major contamination and drainage problems in areas such as Burns Circle.
"There's a lot of mold that grows up on the side of houses. The creosote was first found there in the early '90s," one resident said. "What are we going to do as a community in Burns Circle? Are we going to be concerned about Burns Circle at all?"
Another former Ward 4 resident, Sharon Lewis, said she grew up on 26th Street, just across from the contaminated site of the former railroad cross tie manufacturer that shut down in 2003 amid allegations of environmental contamination.
"Basically we've been waiting for years to get something done, we really don't feel or believe that cleaning the ditch is going to solve the problems," Lewis said. "Nobody ever really addressed the concerns about the residents, so what happens again when they start to do all the digging?"
Despite all the drainage and sewage improvements that need to be made, the number one problem is contamination, Lewis said, while questioning the timing of the community meeting.
"There's several different issues, several different concerns, and a lot of problems," she said. "What new development is going to help if the area is still contaminated? If you have a ditch here and they're cleaning the ditch and then they're going to work on the street ... you still have all the residents. They talk about diverting the water, it's still about the water. It's not about the people. We had this forum here or whatever they're calling it? It's election time. This should have been discussed years ago."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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