Harrison County

EPA listens to those who seek justice

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Environmental activist Derek Evans of Gulfport speaks during the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council's spring meeting at the Marriott hotel in Gulfport on Tuesday March 15, 2016.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Environmental activist Derek Evans of Gulfport speaks during the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council's spring meeting at the Marriott hotel in Gulfport on Tuesday March 15, 2016. SUN HERALD

GULFPORT -- The EPA is listening in Gulfport.

And Coast people from Gulfport to Pascagoula were talking Tuesday at the Courtyard Marriott, joining others from around the region.

An EPA advisory committee -- set up by federal law to find out if communities are getting a chance for meaningful input -- is in town, and the issue is environmental justice.

"We don't have many ways at the federal level to actually hear directly from people," said Matthew Tjada, director of the Office of Environmental Justice. He works with the federally mandated committee of 28 who listen to communities. They have the ear of the regional EPA administrator.

At the first event of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council's spring meeting, Tuesday night was a community cafe at which about 60 representatives of groups from throughout the South exchanged ideas on how to get the message out. The regional administrator out of Atlanta will speak Wednesday morning.

Residents in the Cherokee Forest subdivision in east Pascagoula, who live next door to some of the biggest industry on the Coast, had story boards and a display of data they have collected over the past two years. They had stacks of industry violations, logs of smells, a map of the neighborhood to show it is less than a mile from industry-heavy Bayou Casotte.

Jennifer Cosslin with the Steps Coalition was speaking for the neighborhood, exchanging ideas and taking phone numbers of people from other community groups who approached the table.

The state Department of Environmental Quality wanted to take random air samples over a 24-hour period, Cosslin told an interested woman. "We said that doesn't make sense. It would likely show there's no risk. We convinced them to take samples when the wind is blowing and at odor events."

Still, she said, the state agency agreed to take only five samples.

Cosslin said it is tough to get past MDEQ's notion that "they are the experts and the community is not." She told the woman the neighborhood has met with resistance from MDEQ.

The residents tested their own environment and found levels of manganese five times the accepted EPA level, she said. She encouraged the woman to have her group get samples of their own, if they can.

Across the room, Soria City resident Jerry Pryor talked about the community, a 20-block section of Gulfport that's trying to make a comeback.

The city closed its community center and took the KaBOOM! playground built after Katrina. The walking track is locked.

All her life, the area has had drainage issues. Now, the neighbors are encouraging each other to keep their yards neat and the cars off the streets. They're working with police.

"We've got a great community," she said. "We're trying to bring it back."

The topics at the listening session ranged from destruction of wetlands to toxic releases.

Speaker Derek Evans from the Turkey Creek community said, "We're proof we are capable of framing our own issues . Give us a seat at the table."

Judy Steckler with the Mississippi Land Trust for the Coastal Plain said, "What's really important is the EPA is coming here and seeing it for themselves, rather than hearing it in an office in Atlanta.

"It's one thing to get a report. They're here to see for themselves."

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