MDEQ EPA meet in Picayune, tour sites

Published 4:53 pm Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The most recent listening session of two environmental agencies held in Picayune was heavily attended, but not by local residents.

While there was a number of people in attendance for the listening session, most were from communities in the Hattiesburg area, with a few from the Gulfport and Biloxi areas. Most of the locals who attended were city or elected officials, including one former elected official. The listening session included representatives from Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The listening session, held Saturday, was at the request of EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus. His intent was to gather information about how the two agencies could better serve communities and what they could do to make that happen.

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Part of the visit involved a tour of Picayune’s Superfund site, or what was Picayune Wood Treating, and a tour of the current city hall and its adjacent 200-plus acres. The Superfund site is up for consideration by the agencies to receive an additional $30 million in funds that will help complete the long running cleanup process to remove creosote and other contaminants from the soil and groundwater. The current city hall used to be a chemical plant and is now considered a brownfield area. There was no discussion about the brownfield site receiving funds.

During a meeting held at the city hall, City Manager Harvey Miller gave EPA and MDEQ officials a brief history of the old Arizona Chemicals building and site. Miller said the building was built in 1952 by L.O. Crosby, who was one of the city’s largest employers at the time.

“Back then, it was a state of the art building,” Miller said.

Crosby used to pay his employees with tokens that could be used to purchase goods at his hardware store, Miller said.

In the 1990s, the building was purchased by Arizona Chemicals and used to produce creosote, resin, turpentine and other chemicals. In 2006 the city purchased the building and now uses it as a city hall and office space. Miller said there is a nature conservation group that has shown interest in purchasing about 100 to 150 wooded acres of the site’s 237 acres due to the presence of some bald eagles. The deal is only under discussion and not set in stone, Miller said.

Miller later took some of the EPA and MDEQ representatives on a tour of the site and showed them where the eagles’ nest was located, high in a pine tree.

After that tour, the representative’s took a tour of the city’s Superfund site and received a short description of the completed work and the work that remains.

Later the representatives moved to the listening session, held at South Side Upper Elementary’s cafeteria.

At that meeting, several community members from areas in and around Hattiesburg had complaints about similar sites that have been affected by pollution. The Rev. Steve Jamison of Hattiesburg said according to information he collected from the Center for Disease Control there are areas in that city with death rates higher than some third world countries, allegedly due to the pollution in the area. He alleged that EPA and MDEQ are aware of those sites and have not made an effort to clean them up. He asked why the agencies were not doing their job to meet the needs of the communities. Jamison suggested EPA and MDEQ would be more effective if they would enforce the already existing rules and regulations.

Charlotte Keys, from Columbia, also pleaded for more help with the Superfund site in her area. She suggested the best way to improve the services provided by the two agencies would be to work together with the communities, not against them.

Former Picayune city council member Leavern Guy suggested the agencies could be more proactive, instead of reactive. Waiting until problems arise by allowing violating companies to continue operations is not the way to handle pollution, he said.

“I think (the problem is) that you allow companies to have second chances,” Guy said.

Guy used the example of Stone Treated Materials, which was operating next door to the city’s Superfund site. It was issued cease and desist orders due to non-compliance with rules and regulations. Guy then asked for the status on Stone Treated Materials, since cease and desist orders are not permanent.

MDEQ Executive Director Trudy Fisher said Stone Treated Materials requested a new permit after it was issued cease and desist orders last year. When the company reapplied for that permit, MDEQ requested the company issue a study demonstrating how the company would operate under compliance with MDEQ regulations. The company never responded so MDEQ has not taken further action on Stone Treated Material’s permit request, she said.

Derrick Evans of the Turkey Creek community in Harrison County said there are several issues in his area that are possibly caused by subpar sewer operations compounded by the Hurricane Katrina flooding and creosote pollution. He said the area is a low income community primarily populated by African Americans. He asked for the agency’s consideration to provide help.

At the end of the meeting, Stanislaus said his is committed to dealing the issues presented at the meeting but there is no overnight solution. All of the people’s comments were recorded and will be available on the EPA’s Web site.