What should be done about the 732 million gallons of acid water and the mountains of waste that create them just east of Pascagoula? That was the topic of an Environmental Protection Agency meeting Thursday night.
Acidic gypsum, a byproduct from an environmentally troubled and failed fertilizer plant, is stacked 100 feet high, creating lakes on top and ponds around the base that are holding that much acid water.
For perspective, that’s more than five times the amount of crude oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from Deepwater Horizon in 2010.
The EPA has come to Pascagoula on an emergency basis to stabilize the situation at Mississippi Phosphates, take over the wastewater-treatment plant on Industrial Road, and clean up 2 million gallons of the acid water a day.
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It costs $1 million a month to do that, and EPA representatives told people at the hearing the agency has only three to four months’ worth of funding for this.
That won’t solve the problem, because South Mississippi’s 66-inch average annual rainfall on the 600 acres of acid material will create 600 million new gallons of acid water this year. It’s a never-ending chase to keep the water levels manageable.
Obviously some of us are very angry about the way this turned out.
Steve Shepard, Coast chapter of the Sierra Club
The federal government responded because there’s the risk more rain could cause a spill of acid water into the surrounding environment. That happened in 2005, after heavy rains, and the spill killed nearby Bangs Lake.
Alabama journalist Ben Raines described what he saw:
“This reporter visited the site of the 2005 spill and was met with a wide river of rusty brown trees and dead marsh grass that sliced through the summer green on the edge of Mississippi’s Bangs Lake, near Grand Bay on the Alabama border. Portions of the shallow waters at the upper end of the brackish lake, once hopping with redfish and mullet and home to some of Mississippi’s healthiest oyster beds, were completely lifeless, except for the fluorescent lime glow of algae that grew in dense, sticky mats where the sudden burst of phosphate pollution fueled its growth.”
Fishermen have since reported Bangs Lake has recovered, considerably.
EPA now in charge
Jordan Garrard, on-scene coordinator with the EPA office in Atlanta, is now in charge of treating the water. He told the audience of 60 city officials, industrial neighbors and homeowners Thursday he feels his work has gotten the water in the main lakes down to a safe level for now. However, he pointed out, the area got 10 inches of rain in January.
“The site can only hold so much water,” he said. “When the bucket is full and there’s no place on the property to store the water...” the polluted water flows out.
How acidic is the water?
Jackson County Emergency Management Director Earl Etheridge said, “You could stick your hand in it, but you wouldn’t want to leave it there for long.”
Garrard told the audience he hopes the plant property will be on a national list by April to begin the process of qualifying it as a Superfund site — properties eligible for long-term cleanup, paid for by the federal government.
Even a Superfund site would require the state to pay $12 million, or 10 percent of cleanup costs estimated at $120 million. The cleanup would involve capping the huge stacks but leaving them in place.
When asked who will pick up the tab of treating the water when the EPA response money runs out in three months, Christopher Wells, chief of staff for state Department of Environmental Quality, said, “That is one of our concerns. We don’t know where it would come from.”
History of problems
The plant has had problems for years. It has been cited by the EPA and OSHA for posing a danger to health and the environment.
The company filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 2003 and reopened in 2004. When it maxed out the height for one stack of the industrial gypsum, it got permission from the county and state to create another.
In June 2014, the EPA ranked it 84th in the nation for toxic releases, out of more than 2,900 facilities in the chemical industry, based in part on its release of 810,000 pounds of ammonia into the air each year. It had two deaths in 2012; $300,000 in state environmental fines in 2011; and a rare state DEQ shutdown order in 2013. The order put long-term restrictions on the operation, because an acid mist it was emitting caused neighboring industries to complain their employees were having breathing problems and it made their skin burn.
“Obviously, some of us are very angry about the way this turned out,” Steve Shepard with the Coast chapter of Sierra Club told Garrard. Shepard said he fought hard to keep the state from allowing Mississippi Phosphates to build a second mountain of gypsum in the early 2000s.
The industrial-grade gypsum emits a low level of radiation the EPA said is no threat to workers, but it does contain heavy metals.
Toward the end, in October 2013, the Jackson County tax collector announced Mississippi Phosphates, the county’s sixth-largest taxpayer at $1.1 million, had failed to pay more than half of its property taxes and had several pieces of property in the county tax sale, which were sold for delinquent taxes.
In December 2014, the company announced closure and the layoff of 175 employees.