In the News 2014: Our first year of organizing
We made the local news quite a bit in 2014. The series of articles tells the story of our first year of organizing. During that time, we reached out to anyone and everyone we could think of to speak with about our concerns. We went to city council and county supervisor meetings. We met with the City Manager. We reached out to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). We talked to industry, the media, our doctors, and of course our neighbors.
We wanted to know "what we we're breathing out there." What is the "haze" we see almost every day? We never really got an answer. Each company pointed the finger at the other. When confronted, elected officials, industry, and government agencies were generally willing to talk to us and sometimes they would investigate a bit, but when it came to actually getting to the root cause and real solutions, we quickly learned it was up to us to figure things out.
Given the media attention and the history of violations, Mississippi Phosphates quickly became the villain in our story for that first year. They were an easy target. On August 23, 2013, MDEQ issued Mississippi Phosphates a cease and desist order for two of its sulfuric acid plants. The company had to shut down part of its operation until all issues were resolved.
We only learned about this after the fourth consent decree was issued in May 2014 for failure to comply. We had been reporting sickening odors and a seeing a "mist" in our neighborhood, completely unaware that Mississippi Phosphates was under orders for violations for sulfuric acid leaks and releases.
As we told the Sun Herald in 2014, we were always the last to know about anything. MDEQ knew about the history of violations with Mississippi Phosphates and yet, seemed surprised by our claims that the toxic releases were making us sick.
In response to public pressure and at the request of MDEQ, Mississippi Phosphates agreed to put an air monitor in the community. In the summer of 2014, the company for a paid a third party to monitor for sulfur dioxide. Not exactly the same as sulfuric acid (SO2 versus H2SO4). We also didn't quite understand why they were measuring for sulfur dioxide rather than sulfuric acid but we weren't the experts so we had to rely on MDEQ and industry to conduct the right tests.
They were supposed to monitor for 2 months, but they only actually monitored for one. MDEQ shared the results with us and explained that all the data showed acceptable levels of SO2. None of us fully understood what all the data actually meant, and thus, we had to rely on MDEQ's interpretation. Despite not being experts, we did find it quite strange that in the data, the word "over" was written in place of a number for nearly half of the days. They did not explain why this was the case in their interpretation, and only when we asked about it did MDEQ explain that the monitor wasn't working properly and that they had no intention of making Mississippi Phosphates retest. We left that meeting confused. Why would MDEQ interpret the results as within normal range knowing that the equipment wasn't working properly half the time? Why wouldn't they make the company retest? Did they actually think we were so naive that we would just accept their word that everything was fine? Unfortunately, by the time were learned about the results, Mississippi Phosphates was on its way to bankruptcy and little could be done to hold them accountable.
After all we have learned, we can confidently say that it is very likely the "mist" we saw in our neighborhood was coming from Mississippi Phosphates and had the company or MDEQ accurately tested for sulfuric acid, the results may have told a different story. We have learned that the story MDEQ works very hard to not say and goes out of their way to disprove is that exposure to industrial pollution poses a serious risk to our health.
Mississippi Phosphates was very much the villain in our story for that first year, but they certainly weren't the only ones. We made regularly complaints about all kinds of odors, dust, paint, and noise issues, particularly the "dust" (aka black beauty and fine particles of heavy metals) that was confirmed as coming from VT Halter.
As the Sun Herald reported in May 2014, all of the companies claimed to be responsive to community, assuring the public that they were "good neighbors," but the truth is that they were more concerned about appearing to care than actually doing something. In the summer of 2014, we invited MDEQ, local government, and industry to join a working group to address our concerns. Most of them showed up for the first meeting. MDEQ took over as the lead facilitator and held two more meetings, but the meetings just stopped happening after that without any explanation. Rumor has it that industry refused to continue to participate, but we don't know for sure - another common theme when dealing with powerful companies, there are always conversations happening that we don't know about that shapes the outcome of these situations.
The year ended with our first official public hearing. In February, MDEQ held a training for the community on how to effectively submit public comment for Title V permits. Essentially, every polluting company has to apply for a permit in order to pollute. MDEQ is responsible for writing the permit that allows the company to pollute but with limits, imposing legal requirements and other best practices for reducing the pollution. All companies that release large amounts of pollutants into the air have to apply for what is called a Title V permit. These permits expire every five years. MDEQ has 18 months to reissue the permit upon expiration. MDEQ releases a draft permit for public comment. It is then submitted to the EPA for final approval. We later learned the EPA only reads a small percentage of permits and automatically accepts the rest as submitted.
Most of the facilities near us with Title V permits were up for renewal in 2014, but the only draft permit released that year was the Mississippi Power Cogeneration Plant (the power plant for Chevron). We requested and received a public hearing and submitted our comments for public record. To this day as of June 2022, we do not actually know if the permit has been approved. Also, it took several years for other draft permits to be made available to the public. VT Halter and Halter Marine Offshore's permits, for example, were finally released in the last year or so (more than 6 years after expiration), and Chevron's Title V permit has yet to be released.
We were told early on that the best way to reduce pollution and address our concerns was to participate in the permit process. We now realize that this strategy is very misleading. How can we affect change when MDEQ can delay releasing a draft permit for many years after they are legally required to do so?
Despite all the media attention, 2015 started off much like 2014, we had not really gotten any more answers or real solutions from the people and agencies that are supposed to be representing our interests, but as is the case all across this county, industry and profits are put first above the health and well-being of people.
Still that didn't and hasn't kept us from finding out for ourselves and holding those responsible accountable for the harm they have caused. Our lives are at stake, and we won't stop until we get what we need --- buyout or compensation for our neighborhood.
In the News 2014 Table of Contents
2/16/12- EPA Newsroom: EPA orders Mississippi Phosphates Corporation of Pascagoula to correct problems
6/12/12- Moss Point man dies in Mississippi Phosphates explosion
8/20/13- There are Dead Fish and It is Mississippi Phosphates Fault
8/20/13- Thousands of Dead Fish Floating in Pascagoula
4/1/14- Quality-of-life issues bring out concerned Pascagoula residents
5/21/14- Air quality around industrial plants scare Pascagoula residents
5/21/14- Response from plants around Bayou Casotte
5/22/14- Acid Mist force MDEQ to shut down Pascagoula’s Mississippi Phosphates plant
5/24/14- Town hall meeting set for Thursday for southeast Pascagoula
5/27/14- Group concerned with air pollution encourages residents to attend town hall meeting
5/27/14- Editorial: DEQ should share warning about air quality
5/29/14- East Pascagoula residents told to call 911 about air issues
5/30/14- Pascagoula neighborhood may be last to learn of air- quality issues
5/30/14- Miss. Phosphates puts emergency bypass in place
6/12/14- Air monitoring coming for plagued Pascagoula neighborhood
6/7/14- Fertilizer maker reports another acid release
6/18/14- Mississippi Phosphates’ fines, violations, and compliance issues
6/18/14- Mississippi Phosphates ranks high in toxic releases, gets special CEO
6/23/14- Mississippi Phosphates to place air monitors in Pascagoula neighborhood
7/7/14- Neighborhood rep call MDEQ workshop a triumph
7/31/14- A first—training residents to affect industrial air permits
8/18/14- Industry is crossing their fenceline and invading us with emissions, residents tell supervisors
9/6/14- A statement from Mississippi Phosphates
9/18/14- Grant could help Cherokee neighborhood residents monitor air
10/27/14- Pascagoula’s Mississippi Phosphates files chapter 11 bankruptcy