Connie Davis says a constant nosebleed has plagued her ever since she moved with her family to Columbus from Tupelo when she was 10. She also complains of skin infections and rashes. Her two sons, Delvin and Darrell, started suffering from asthma soon after they were born. Delvin has it, still. Darrell, however, died of circulatory complications at 19.
"The doctor said all the asthma medication weakened his heart," Davis said, adding that living a block from the Kerr-McGee plant was worse on some days than others.
"One day, a few years before the plant closed, there was this smell filling the air. It smelled like stale buttermilk. It was awful. It made your eyes sting and covered everything with black specks: your clothes, your car and you. I never knew what that was all about."
Former Kerr-McGee employee Jerry Brooks says he knows what the smell was. Brooks, 46, used to operate a hydraulic spacking table, serving the wood-products company 15 years and making $10 an hour before the plant shut its doors in 2003.
"I'm thinking it was coming from that creosote after we mixed it with washing powder," Brooks said, explaining how the plant manager's idea of cleaning up a major hazardous waste spill—which should have involved hazard suits and scooping out acres of contaminated soil more than 30 feet down—consisted of a heavy dusting of washing powder.
Oklahoma City-based Kerr-McGee operated its Columbus plant since 1928 before closing it in 2003. Some Columbus residents are claiming that, all along, the factory dumped a toxic substance into neighborhood draining ditches and groundwater.
"Creosote is everywhere under this property," Davis said. "You can see it where it washes out of the ground. It sticks to your feet. It's all up under the house. Underneath there it just looks like tar. ... They put dirt on top of it and just built these houses here on the dirt."
Coal tar creosote is the most commonly used wood preservative in America. It's the best chemical around when it comes to keeping bacteria, fungus and insects from chewing up wooden light poles or railroad crossties. It's effective because it sports a nasty concoction of poisons like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenol and cresols. Joining the so-called active ingredients are thousands of other components, such as alkylnaphthalenes, naphthalene, diphenyl, acenaphthalene, fluorene, plus small amounts of higher phenols and diphenylene oxide—any of which can do a number on delicate organic tissues with extended exposure.
Poison databases all over the Internet rattle off a laundry list of symptoms that can result from exposure to creosote, such as sensitivity to sunlight, lung infection, immune deficiency disorders and in some cases, the shutdown of the lungs and other organs.
"That time they had that huge spill the plant manager went somewhere and came back with a trailer full of about 150 to 200 boxes of washing powder," former employee Brooks claimed. "Somebody had backed over a pipe sticking up out of the ground with a backhoe. Well, the pipe wasn't supposed to be connected to anything, but creosote starting pouring out of it. Lots of it. It poured down the hill and went in the water drain. I remember this happened when the supervisors were there. The Oklahoma supervisors were out there cleaning with us, but then they told local television news that the spill wasn't no more than a gallon," said Brooks, who lives within a mile of the old plant and has a daughter with a constant nosebleed and skin rashes.
The drain the creosote poured into, and every ditch surrounding the plant, for that matter, leads eventually to the slow rolling waters of the Luxapalila—one of the sources of drinking water for the town of Columbus.
Maxine Dunbar and Edward Williams simply took the burning skin, joint pain and daily migraines for granted. Weekly agues were so prevalent in the black community that it seemed obvious that government inspectors, local or federal, had no intention of doing anything about it. And it wasn't like a family struggling to keep food in the fridge was going to scrape up money for lawyers anytime soon. Justice and lawsuits were for white people.
But then the Maranatha Faith Center, a burgeoning black church with hundreds of members, hit a snag while they were expanding their temple in 1999. Following the segregationist trend of much of Mississippi, the white community residing in the territory south of Kerr-McGee fled the area during the 1960s and 1970s. In the process, they abandoned their white church, which would later become Maranatha, owned by the Rev. Steve Jamison. Jamison and the church board decided a new church was needed to contain the growing congregation.
"We had a bond issue to pay for it, but that contract said if we found contaminants we were to clean it up ... well, we found creosote under the dirt. Lots of it. Everywhere. So we had to stop work. The problem was that our loan payback was based on new revenue generated by that new church. Because we couldn't finish the building, we had to file bankruptcy to keep the church going."
Now facing a negative $500,000 value on the poisoned property, the board of Maranatha Faith Center went after Kerr-McGee in 2000, and was astounded to find prominent attorney Johnnie Cochran, of O.J. Simpson fame, coming to their defense.
"If you continue looking the other way when the powerless are wronged, then nothing will ever change," Cochran said about the case during a 2001 visit to Jackson. "Black communities make easy victims for careless corporations … and black communities bear a disproportionate amount of contamination from pollution all across this country."
Cochran died of a brain tumor in 2005, but the Maranatha case lives on.
Plant employees say things changed dramatically after the church announced its suit. "CAUTION" signs were suddenly popping up everywhere, even though months earlier managers had denied to employees that creosote was even dangerous.
Similar suits began rolling in against Kerr-McGee wood products plants in other places like Bossier City, La., and Avoca, Pa.—like Columbus, small and rural communities with high percentages of ethnic populations and high rates of the same types of cancer, respiratory illnesses and birth defects.
In 2002, Kerr-McGee reached a class-action settlement on behalf of some Columbus residents represented by environmental toxic tort attorney Hunter Lundy of Lake Charles, La. The settlement, with no connection to the Maranatha suit, cost the company $50 million. But Kerr-McGee reported almost $6 billion in revenue for the year 2005, according to its annual SEC report. Though some residents report getting up to $15,000 from the settlement, others claim the settlement check didn't begin to cover the doctor bills and real estate devaluation that came of contamination.
"There are some people who might have gotten $400 for a contaminated piece of worthless property and a lifetime of sickness for them and their kids," Brooks said. "That settlement was a disgrace. I know some people who haven't even gotten their money, yet. Their lawyer sometimes won't call them back."
Lundy did not return calls to the Jackson Free Press.
Maranatha is still pursuing its own case, asking for $100 million from the industrial giant. The case shuffled from court to court, first hitting Hinds County Chancery Court, before Kerr-McGee lawyers requested the case go to Columbus Chancery Court. Attorneys then whisked the case off to Columbus Circuit Court, and Kerr-McGee attorneys now say the case needs to be moved again to another venue with less of a tainted opinion.
More than 20 former Kerr-McGee workers and supervisors, like Brooks, have given depositions to lawyers and federal health officials in the Maranatha case. Kerr-McGee denies any wrongdoing, claiming the company adhered to all rules and regulations and that it held frequent, thorough meetings addressing on-the-job safety.
"Our top priorities are the safety of our employees, contractors and the community and care for the environment," says Debbie Schramm, vice president of communications at Tronox, a Kerr-McGee offshoot that now owns the Columbus property.
Schramm says the plant garnered numerous recognitions by a variety of inspectors. In 1998 and 2001, OSHA awarded the facility its OSHA Star worksite certification, for outstanding safety and health management, and in 2000, the EPA designated the Columbus facility a charter member of the EPA's National Environmental Achievement Track Program, recognizing businesses for exceeding environmental protection requirements.
Also, in 1997 and again in 1999, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recognized the facility with ISO 14000 certification and ISO 9002 certification for quality management and completed successful periodic audits.
Former employees like field worker Leon Hines claim the company regularly falsified information to cover up creosote spills and to hide month-to-month malfeasance, however.
"The environmental folks would always warn them when they were about to come by for a visit, so the company always sectioned off contaminated areas they didn't want the inspectors to see, and the inspectors never asked to see it," Hines said. "That was just the way business was between the government and Kerr-McGee."
Sierra Club Mississippi Chapter Co-Chairwoman Becky Gillette said polluting industries in Mississippi are basically self-regulating because of the state's loose environmental standards and poor oversight. "We have superfund sites all over Mississippi, and every last one of them was operating within their permits according to inspectors, but then when they close down they leave huge toxic messes that taxpayers have to clean up," Gillette said.
Last month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry came to Columbus to gather testimony about the contamination, and passions were high. Almost 500 people showed up—all complaining of similar health problems, all furious at 70 years of government indifference. Environmental health scientist James Durant practically fled the first hearing, caving under the volley of angry questions, demands and anger.
Brooks said he doesn't have high hopes for government intervention, judging by the amount of intervention in the past.
"I just don't think anything's going to come of that. Nobody's cared for almost 100 years. I don't think they'll care now," Brooks said. "I'll put my faith in the Maranatha lawsuit before trusting the government to do something. That's just the way it is."
This is a sad story and it is unfortunate that our environment and what man has put into it is killing us. The bad part is the fact that these companies know what they have done and why they did it (money). I will keep my fingers crossed and say a little prayer for the successful outcome of the Maranatha lawsuit.
My mom lives in River Ridge, LA and in a nearby city there is a chemical plant of some sort. The residents there have access to buckets that test the atmosphere around them. They are now able to call foul on the plant when they go over the legal limit of pollutants. Of course, why does anyone want to live in a world where there are people of your own species toeing the line of health hazard because of profit?
- daniel johnson