PASCAGOULA — After years of dealing with thick dust, strong, acrid smells and health problems, residents of a southeast Pascagoula neighborhood may soon know what’s in their air.
It’s a work in progress, but an effort has begun to get a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for handheld monitors for the residents of the Cherokee Forest neighborhood’s 132 homes along heavily industrialized Bayou Casotte.
Howard Page, community coordinator with the STEPS Coalition, said as things stand now, the plants monitor the air around them and report to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
“With this, citizens will be able to monitor their air in real time,” Page said.
It’s not a done deal, but “we do have high hopes,” he said.
He’s meeting today with officials from Louisiana State University and the University of Southern Mississippi to participate in the effort. If approved, it will be a three-year, $750,000 grant that will include air monitoring at the Port of Gulfport.
Still, it’s just a glimmer of hope in an otherwise untenable situation.
Residents have stomach and respiratory problems and headaches. Their children can’t play outside.
They’ve told regulators what’s in the air and what’s on the ground is coming into their yards, onto their cars, onto their skin and into their lungs.
MDEQ analysis of dust found on residents’ cars exceeds the restricted soil levels for iron and arsenic.
An informal health survey shows asthma rates in adults well above the national average.
And last month, the EPA fined Signal International $50,000 for discharge into Bayou Casotte that violated the Clean Water Act.
And now residents are using the B-word: Buyout.
Making a case
Members of the Cherokee Concerned Citizens advocacy group will start monitoring odors — keeping a log of what they smell, what time of day they smell it and how it affects them.
“That’s one way to cross reference the releases … to pinpoint who is causing it,” said Jennifer Crosslin of the STEPS Coalition.
In addition, handheld air monitors can help track “what’s in the air and what’s the correlation with illness,” she said.
The EPA grant will be awarded in the first quarter of 2015. It’s not a sure thing. But residents could raise money to buy monitors, which cost between $1,500 and $5,000.
Health assessments can also play a role in getting that EPA grant, Page said. The state Department of Public Health has offered to give toxicology referrals.
And the Coastal Family Health Center in Moss Point has agreed to do health assessments and consult a toxicologist for residents, Crosslin said.
Government entities that monitor air and water quality are familiar with the industries across the fence line from this community.
During a tour of Mississippi Phosphates in 2009, an EPA inspector walked through a puddle so acidic it ate leather off his work boots.
An EPA inspection that year yielded a biting administrative order, using the words “imminent and substantial” danger when referring to the possible impact on human health or the environment.
Last year, MDEQ shut down two plants at the fertilizer manufacturer because they were creating an acid mist that caused neighboring industry to evacuate workers.
All the while, neighbors less than a mile away said they were unaware of the reports.
Mississippi Phosphates said it pledged more than $2.5 million to clean up what the EPA found in 2009; has made other improvements; and more recently set up an air monitor in the neighborhood to detect sulfur dioxide.
Cherokee Concerned Citizens members are no longer unaware. They are working with local government, MDEQ and the industries to find solutions.
Barbara Weckesser, who leads the neighborhood group, has representatives from the four industries — Chevron Pascagoula Refinery, First Chemical and VT Halter Marine and Signal International — at her home on a regular basis, responding to calls when there’s something in the air.
She was diagnosed with chemical exposure in October 2013, and asthma in January.
During a meeting Thursday night, looking over soil analysis and medical reports, she said “a lot of people want to be bought out. They are tired.”
Karen Nelson, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.