Jackson County

A toxic waste site near the Sound in Pascagoula is too close for comfort. The EPA has a plan.

When the giant gypsum stacks, with the hundreds of millions of gallons of acid water they create, became a Superfund site last month, the head of EPA said it would move quickly to make a difference.

He’s doing it.

Next week, the EPA will present a cleanup plan for a big portion of the Mississippi Phosphates site.

The goal is to stop the mountains of industrial waste from collecting rain and turning it into huge pools of acid water so close to an active waterway that goes directly to the Mississippi Sound.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt calls the plan “early action,” so that Pascagoula and the Coast will benefit. It’s not the complete fix, but what his team is laying out is extensive. (The EPA took over the site in February and put it on the Superfund list in December.)

The site is a former fertilizer plant that used sulfuric acid in its process. Running since the 1950s, it piled acidic waste in two mountainous stacks, more than 100 feet high. Just one has been likened to the size of the Mercedes Superdome.

One stack is closed, but still creates waste at the base. The other is raw acidic gypsum that is slightly radioactive. There’s an acid lake at the top that holds tons of water and ponds all around, where rain is collected once it hits the stack and becomes toxic to marine life. The holding ponds keep it from surrounding waterways.

They explain it like this: EPA treats the wastewater to neutralize the pH and remove high levels of nutrients to prevent an uncontrolled release to Bayou Casotte and the Grand Bay Estuary Reserve. Neutralizing the pH prevents any acute toxicity impacts to aquatic wildlife. Removing nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia, prevents harmful algal blooms from forming.

Since most of the acid water is rainfall that hits the walls of the stack, the plan is to stop the contact. That will greatly reduce the amount of water they are dealing with and improve the quality. One inch of rain adds 9 million gallons to the lake on top and the holding ponds. Last year, Pascagoula recorded 109 inches of rain as of November.

The EPA has worked hard to stop the risk of “uncontrolled releases,” which means having the ponds overflow or a dam break, sending untreated water into waterways.

Stop the contact with rain

Here’s the quick version of what they hope to do:

Close the remaining stack in multiple phases, treating the wastewater on-site.

Grade the sides of the stack and cover it with a liner and dirt.

Drain the ponds and cover them with a liner and dirt.

Two major ponds will be pushed in on themselves and filled in. Another pond and a water-return ditch will be drained and have a liner placed over them. The north ponds will be covered in place.

Below is the technical version that will be presented at the public meeting on Jan. 11 at the Pascagoula Senior Center, 1912 Live Oak Ave.

The EPA staff will be there to answer questions.

▪  Phase 1 (2018) — Close the current and open east gypsum stack, including Pond 3 and Pond 4 and stack side slopes to reduce rainwater contacting the area by 155 acres, or 41 percent.

▪  Phase 2 (2019) — Close the east gypsum stack Pond 5 and the west gypsum stack north ponds to reduce rainwater contact in an additional 75 acres, or 62 percent total.

▪  Phase 3 (2020) — Close east gypsum stack Pond 6 and the water return ditch around the perimeter of the stack to achieve 100 percent closure.

The public will be invited to comment on the cleanup plan during a 30-day period beginning Jan. 11.

The first phases of cleanup will be followed at a later date by a site-wide final cleanup. EPA also will present that remedy to the public for input.

Not an easy road

In 2015, Mississippi Phosphates pleaded guilty to a single violation of the Clean Water Act, out of many alleged by the EPA since 2000.

There have been two major wastewater spills or releases into the surrounding ecosystems that killed plants and animals — in 1998 and 2005.

In 2009, the EPA and OSHA cited the plant as a substantial danger to human health and pointed out inadequate safety equipment among other things.

It had $300,000 in state environmental fines in 2011, two deaths in 2012 and a rare state shutdown order in 2013 that held restrictions on the Pascagoula operation until it closed for creating an acid mist that caused neighboring industries to complain it was burning the skin of their workers.

At one point, 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.

Public meeting

The EPA is offering the Coast a chance to ask questions about how it will handle the Mississippi Phosphates site off Industrial Road, east of Pascagoula.

When: 6 to 8 p.m., Jan. 11

Where: Pascagoula Senior Center, 1912 Live Oak Ave.

Details: www.epa.gov/superfund/ms-phosphates-corp

About the plant

The long-time fertilizer plant went bankrupt and closed at the end of 2014, leaving more than 700 million gallons of acidic and contaminated wastewater.

In February, the EPA assumed temporary control of wastewater treatment, when a $12 million trust for treatment was exhausted.

The EPA has been treating 2 million gallons a day at a cost of $1 million a month.

It added the site to the Superfund list in December.

It will continue to oversee treatment until the site is cleaned up or sold.