“The issue is justice.”
Poor and minority communities throughout the South are in pain, victims not only of social prejudice, but of economic discrimination by multinational corporations seeking cheap, easy places to site their toxics-producing incinerators, landfills, and factories. Finally, in Mississippi, one African American community is fighting back.
One by one on a recent muggy afternoon in rural Columbia, Mississippi — in the blessedly cool interior of a gymnasium-size meeting hall — members of Jesus People Against Pollution rose to bear witness to the misery wrought in their lives by hazardous wastes.
“In January I lost my son,” one middle-aged woman said grimly, gripping a facecloth as she stood in her summer dress in the center of a circle of people seated on folding chairs. “Then in February I lost my husband. In March I lost my brother. My older sister started breakin’ out in pimples, then a sore started takin’ over her nose until finally she died. She paused a moment to scan her audience before letting her anguish explode: “Why did they die? I believe it’s a chemical that’s takin’ my family from me, and I feel like somebody should know, and somebody should pay.”
Listening intently were activists from throughout the Southeast, including more than 20 delegates from the Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee (GCRCC) representing the Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Delta (Louisiana), Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennesssee, and Lone Star (Texas) chapters of the Sierra Club. Four years ago, the GCRCC began reaching out to grassroots minority groups to assist them in winning environmental justice. Since then, committee organizers and activists have been lending a hand to minority communities throughout the South and across North America that struggle to protect local residents against toxic threats.
The GCRCC’s presence in Columbia was one example of the organization’s concerted effort on behalf of people of color. Organizers came to the community to reaffirm a commitment they had made to Jesus People Against Pollution (JPAP, pronounced “JayPap”) a year earlier, when Sierra Club President J. Robert Cox and others vowed to assist the group in freeing the town’s mostly African American, politically disenfranchised citizens from the yoke of a hazardous-waste site that had been strangling them for 17 years.
Evidence of their suffering was plain to see from the ugly rashes that covered many people’s swolen arms, legs, and torsos. Locals told of themselves or family members being stricken with cancer, nervous disorders, chronic nosebleeds, breathing problems, birth defects, and miscarriages.
“The dump in our community has brought on a major health crisis that a lot of us do not know how to deal with,” said JPAP President Charlotte Keys. “The people of Columbia need help for relocation and medical treatment. I know that God has doctors who know how to treat patients exposed to toxins. But we don’t have them here in Columbia, Mississippi. We’re looking forward to getting them.”
“The issue here is justice — the lack of justice,” said one activist.
The plight of Columbia’s residents began in 1977, when the nearly new Reichhold Chemical Company plant near downtown Columbia exploded and caught fire. The accident destroyed the operation, but left behind more than 4,500 drums of chemicals, which Reichhold subsequently interred in an 81-acre field at the site.
Unbeknownst to the residents, the drums were leaking, allowing chemicals to seep into the groundwater supplying Columbia’s artesian wells. Over the next several years, a series of floods flushed toxins from the site and spread them into surrounding farmlands, rivers, swimming holes, and streets.
In 1984 the Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the site, and two years later placed it on the Superfund priority list for hazardous-waste cleanup. Then came workers, decked out in protective clothing, to perform the arduous task of removing the barrels and decontaminating the immediate area.
With that mission now accomplished, the EPA has indicated it will soon take the site off the Superfund list — a move JPAP says is premature. To prove the point, JPAP members led GCRCC delegates to a nearby farm where some two dozen drums reeking of chemicals — the remainder of a 150-drum lot sold dirt cheap in 1978 to a farmer who used the unidentified contents as bush killer — lie strewn on a hill next to a county road.
“Why is the EPA about to delist the Reichhold site,” asks Cox, “when barrels like these are still lying around, leaking stuff labeled dangerous, flammable, and corrosive?” He and the GCRCC delegates are calling for the EPA to conduct expanded cleanup efforts in the area, and have asked the agency to provide mobile medical testing units for the community.
“I strongly believe we’re being tested here,” said John McCown, who successfully campaigned against the siting of hazardous-waste facilities in his hometown of Sparta, Georgia, and whose father was a prominent civil-rights leader in the deep South. “For so long we’ve allowed industry to divide us on the basis of race and class. We’re going to have to come together as brothers and sisters — as human beings — to stop this problem of environmental injustice.
“As John Muir said, there’s a connectedness between all things. If people in Columbia, Mississippi, are suffering, then something is ailing European Americans from North Carolina to California as well.”