Richard Sanders of Columbus, close neighbor of the ditch construction off 26th Street and Seventh Avenue North, listens during the Ditch Completion Ceremony on Tuesday. "I'm just here as a member of the community to see the end result," Sanders said. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Franklin Hill, director of the EPA's Region 4 Superfund Division, speaks during the Seventh Avenue Ditch Completion Ceremony on Tuesday. The project used settlement funds for restoration work near the old Kerr-McGee plant site.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
In this 2016 file photo, workers excavate a ditch and install box culverts along Seventh Avenue during an environmental remediation project.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
The ditch, pictured before restoration work began, contained the toxic chemical creosote used in making railroad cross ties.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
January 25, 2017 10:24:47 AM
In three months, the Seventh Avenue ditch has transformed from an open, jagged trench filled with snakes, exposed pipes and other dangers to an unassuming grassy space.
Willie Riley, a Seventh Avenue resident who's lived near the ditch since 1995, said he's happy the transformation is complete.
"The ditch used to stop up and have snakes and stuff in it," Riley said. "You know, we've got kids and grandchildren who could be falling in the ditch, and we don't want that."
On Tuesday, the city celebrated the completion of the $2.8 million project, which included installation of a new lining and box culverts along 935 feet of ditch from Maranatha Faith Center to Propst Park.
Mayor Robert Smith lauded the work, which was finished early and with costs less than the estimated $3.3 million price tag. Smith also noted the project did not cost the city any money.
The project is the second the city and other groups, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust, have undertaken to remove creosote and improve drainage in ditches flowing from the former Kerr-McGee plant site. In 2015, the city completed a renovation of the ditch along 14th Avenue.
Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation and its successor, Tronox Inc., operated a chemical manufacturing facility at the site near the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and 14th Avenue from 1928 to 2003.
The facility produced railroad cross ties. Since its close, the site has been discovered as the source of environmental contamination -- primarily from creosote -- and sealed off. Creosote is a chemical used to preserve wood. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, it can cause skin and eye irritation, stomach pains, liver or kidney problems and possibly cancer.
The Greenfield Trust manages more than 400 former Kerr-McGee sites in 24 states. It is responsible for using $5.5 billion from the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the company to address high-priority environmental issues at the former sites. Columbus received $68 million for environmental action around its former Kerr-McGee location.
"There's still a lot of work to be done, but we've come a long way," Smith said Tuesday.
Kim Dooley, another resident who has lived by the ditch for about seven years, said she's happy to see the long-overdue work completed. She's said the ditch would grow wider over time as it eroded -- a cause of concern for residents.
"It's really nice," she said. "I'm glad not to see the ditch with all the little critters that used to be in it."
Smith praised the efforts of the Community Action Group, which functions in a support role in obtaining funds for the projects. He said the group has been a "tremendous asset" for the city on both the 14th and Seventh Avenue projects.
He also said Rev. Steve Jamison, pastor of the Maranatha Faith Center and retired construction worker, played an integral role with the group. Jamison could not attend Tuesday's ceremony due to health issues.
"Rev. Jamison himself has traveled to (Washington) D.C. on several occasions," Smith said. "He's been to Atlanta and several other places in order to help us get funds for this project."
Charles King, with EPA, said the project, though meant to primarily address environmental concerns from the Kerr-McGee site, also led to general health and safety improvements for the area.
"There were pipes going across, and sometimes you'd see kids' toys or bottles and things that were really a health hazard, not so much an environmental risk," King said. "But as we address the environmental issues, we also found a way to try and make it better."
Franklin Hill, Director of the EPA's Region 4 Superfund Division, said he's pleased with the work that's been accomplished in the roughly five years since work to remediate environmental damage from the Kerr-McGee site began.
"We're a little bit behind, but we're going to get there," Hill said. "And we're going to get there with a good remedy that's going to be protected and a remedy that will support reuse in this community for that site."
Lauri Gorton, director of environmental programs/senior strategist and project manager for Columbus with the Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust, said that the next steps in the remediation process will see preparation for more ditch work and other improvements near the former Kerr-McGee site.
"We know that there's contamination in the ditches between here and the Kerr-McGee site, so we will continue to work back toward the site to take the contamination out of those ditches," Gorton said. "We also will be looking now at the places where our investigation found contamination on the pine yard and on the main site.
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