Jackson County

Toxic water came inches away from flowing into a Pascagoula bayou over the weekend

It was one massive water drop Sunday — on a mountain of acidic gypsum.

The storm that tore roofs off a neighboring industry dumped more than 108 million gallons of water on the waste gypsum stacks at Mississippi Phosphates that the EPA is managing in east Pascagoula and scrambled the staff for emergency measures that kept them inches from overflow.

The EPA had its hands full. The deluge that was not forecast dropped millions of gallons in little more than 12 hours, as the storm moved through.

The EPA rain gauges at Mississippi Phosphates overflowed at 12 inches — a foot of water on the 300-acre site equals 108 million gallons running down the mountain and into the holding ponds around it.

The east stack is 2 million tons of gypsum left when a fertilizer plant went bankrupt. It’s on the list to become a superfund site.

On Sunday, workers had to cut a dike and open an emergency storage pond — a one-shot bullet — and then watch as the water level grew, creeping up the cement wall of an emergency spillway that would have sent water off the property and into ditches that lead into nearby Bayou Casotte.

It stopped only a few inches from the top of the spillway.

Jordan Garrard, the on-site EPA manager for the gypsum wastewater, looked at the debris line on the spillway Tuesday with a mix of pride and relief — realizing just how close they came.

If the acidic water had reached the top of the spillway, the EPA would have hit the water with sodium hydroxide — sort of like shocking a swimming pool — an emergency procedure before it went over. Garrard assured the Sun Herald that at least the pH of the water would have been neutralized.

It’s the low or acidic pH that causes untreated water coming off the gypsum stack to suddenly damage the surrounding environment. Acid water kills fish.

But on Sunday, the five-man federal crew at Mississippi Phosphates held the line.

It, however, left the site at capacity — 750 million gallons in the holding ponds.

As soon as things began to stabilize, they knew the next step would be to begin another bypass to get the water levels down in the gypsum ponds. They plan to release 100 million gallons over the next week.

A bypass is partially treated acid water coming off the gypsum and diffused into Bayou Casotte. The pH is corrected, but the nutrients are still in the water. Bypass is designed to be a short-term solution when water levels get so high on top of the mountain and in surrounding holding ponds.

It’s imperative to keep the water levels down, because a breach of the system — when the walls of the gypsum ponds fail — sends untreated, nutrient-rich, acid water into nearby waterways.

That hasn’t happened since the EPA took over the site in February, but millions of gallons have spilled through the years — after Hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005.

A major spill in 1998 left nearby Bangs Lake lifeless, killing fish, oyster beds, trees and marsh grass. It’s part of the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The Mississippi Phosphates fertilizer plant that created two mountains of waste gypsum, went bankrupt in 2014 leaving only $12 million in a trust to manage the wastewater from the still active gypsum stacks. One stack has been capped, but still leaks. The company had been making fertilizer since the 1950s.

It costs the EPA about $1 million a month to treat the wastewater.

This has been a rainy year. Jackson County has had 42 inches over the norm or 109 inches of rain so far this year.

Every inch that falls on the 2 million tons of gypsum creates 9 million gallons of wastewater to treat.

What does 108 million gallons look like?

  • Niagara Falls flows at 1 million gallons every 1.3 seconds, so the water coming over Niagara Fall for two full minutes and 20 seconds.
  • It takes 20,000 gallons to fill the average backyard pool, so 5,400 swimming pools.
  • 1 million gallons equals 20,000 bath tubs, so about 2.2 million baths.