March 14, 2013 9:58:26 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
A decade has passed since the Kerr-McGee chemical plant on 14th Avenue was shut down and sealed off from the public, but residents say the toxic after-effects linger, endangering the health of approximately 3,500 people who call this East Columbus neighborhood their home.
So far, the road to recovery has been a slow process -- a massive undertaking that has stretched beyond the perimeters of the 90-acre site, forcing officials to deal with infrastructure issues before the first shovels of dirt are turned.
The Memphis Town Community Action Group, headed by Maranatha Faith Center pastor Rev. Steve Jamison, has determined that the anticipated fleets of heavy moving equipment, semi-trucks and tractor-trailer trucks would create "a logistical nightmare" trying to navigate the narrow road leading to the site, and after months of haggling, they have finally convinced the Environmental Protection Agency to see things their way.
And so begins a new project: Widening 14th Avenue to include two traffic lanes, one turn lane and a 30-foot shoulder on the south side, and widening the nearby drainage ditch to 35 feet to create somewhat of a retention pond during heavy rains and prevent potentially toxic water from spilling into residents' yards.
Neel-Schaffer engineering firm is in charge of the proceedings, and Jamison said bids should be open by September. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will contribute around $800,000 while the City of Columbus will contribute $400,000. The EPA, which is not allowed to fund city improvement projects, will provide another $400,000 of in-kind services.
The Kerr-McGee plant opened in Columbus in 1928, making railroad cross ties and other pressure-treated timber products. The facility also used pentacholorphenol, commonly known as PCP, for some of its processes. The plant closed amid allegations of environmental contamination -- namely that creosote, a wood treatment chemical that has been linked to cancer, skin irritation and respiratory complaints, was leaching into the soil.
The EPA designated the area a Superfund site and added it to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites in September 2011.
Jamison said the EPA and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality pump around $1 million gallons of toxic water from the ditch each month, extracting as much as 5,000 gallons per month of creosote.
Residents believe that creosote, and its byproducts, is to blame for widespread health problems in the area, including high incidence rates of cancer, kidney disease and infant mortality.
Jamison says he was healthy until 1999, when he encountered creosote bubbling from the ground while working on an addition to the church, located at 716 Waterworks Road. Within six months, he says, his kidneys were failing and his blood pressure was sky-rocketing.
Colonial Trust Co., which had loaned money for the church expansion, rescinded the loan and Marinatha Faith Center, along with more than 4,000 residents, filed suit against Kerr-McGee. In an April 2012 article in Bloomberg Markets Magazine, Columbus attorney Wilbur Colom said property damage and personal injury claims were settled for $50 million.
The United States Department of Justice, on behalf of the EPA, filed a $25 billion lawsuit, alleging that Kerr-McGee was responsible for leaving a toxic trail across 2,772 sites, including Columbus. Victims across the country stand to divide 12 percent, or up to $2 billion, of whatever the DOJ wins.
But Jamison feels Kerr-McGee should have had to pay more.
"Creosote is devastating and these people didn't get near enough for their troubles and future illnesses and sicknesses," Jamison says. "This community was raped. The courts and lawyers allowed Kerr-McGee to rape Columbus -- that's just the bottom line."
Initially, the community action group's meetings -- held the fourth Tuesday of each month at Genesis Church -- attracted 65-70 people hoping for settlements, but as the years passed and hopes faded, Jamison says interest in the cause faded as well. But he has no intention of giving up the fight.
He sees the potential for future income generated by brownfields grants and a solar farm. But he believes local developers, seeing income potential as well, are trying to usurp the group's leadership, which includes himself, vice-chairman Maurice Webber, treasurer Connie Davis and secretary Leon Hinds.
Jamison contends that any profit made from the site should go to the people most affected by the contamination.
"I've made this my life's quest," he says. "I realize it's a long process. I've decided God has me here to make sure our children and grandchildren don't have to live with this same legacy of contamination."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.