Superfund site in Columbia, Mississippi

September 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

These photos are from a project I started in the summer of 2009 about a small community in Columbia, Mississippi that has been poisoned by chemical pollution for more than 40 yrs.  It is less than three-quarters of a mile long, one-quarter of a mile wide, and is home to approximately one hundred-fifty families.  Back in the day it was called Well Quarters, now it is often referred to as “The Slums of Columbia.”

I think about Well Quarters nearly every day.  For my generation, especially those that have grown up in middle class America, it’s easy to believe that people in this country are treated equally; that we are all given equal rights to education, clean water, and fairness in the judicial system.  Well Quarters was proof that even here, in the U.S., not all people are treated equally.

The neighborhood of Well Quarters in Columbia, Mississippi has always been a poor community.  In the 1950s much of the area was sharecropper’s land, but it was still a tidy neighborhood where people mowed their lawns and planted flowers.  Maybe one’s child wouldn’t go to college, but they might finish high school, and then maybe their children would make it to college.  In 1970 a company called Reichhold Chemical Company opened a facility adjacent to the neighborhood.  In addition to chromium and phenols, the company was also reportedly producing all the chemicals used to make Agent Orange.  For years they buried 50 gallon drums of chemical waste in the ground on the facility and released it into the creek that ran through the neighborhood.

Jingling Creek at the entrance of Well Quarters in Columbia, Mississippi, June 3, 2009. Photo © Becky Holladay

In 1977 there was an explosion at the plant, releasing toxic chemicals into the air. The facility was abandoned soon afterward.  In 1984, seven years later, the EPA ordered a clean-up process, declaring it a Superfund and putting it on the National Priorities List.  The EPA put up a cyclone fence to separate the site from the neighborhood, a fence that some could reach out and touch from their bathroom window, a fence from which many would hang their laundry.  The area was declared remediated in 2000, but in the meantime many people became ill and/or died.  Knock on any door in the neighborhood and several of its occupants will have a litany of health problems: cancer, early onset heart disease, anemia, kidney disease, asthma, and strange rashes that itch and burn.  All these health problems have been linked to chromium and phenol poisoning.

Juanita Maxwell, age 50, who is in the final stages of ovarian cancer, is prayed for by her two nieces at her home in the neighborhood of Well Quarters in Columbia, Mississippi, June 3, 2009. Her home is located within a few hundred yards of an old chemical facility called Reichhold Chemical. Photo © Becky Holladay

A woman who has lived in Well Quarters her entire life stands at the entrance of her home, less than 25 yards from the site of the abandoned chemical facility. She's in her 30s and has chronic kidney disease. Photo © Becky Holladay

Regina Dillon, 38, with her daughter, Briana Dillon, age 8, outside their home in the neighborhood of Well Quarters in Columbia, Mississippi, June 3, 2009. Their home is less than a quarter mile from the abandoned chemical facility. Regina was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, and doctors recently found pre-cancerous cells on her kidneys as well. Her daughter, Briana has asthma and rashes. Photo © Becky Holladay

A neighbor checks in on Lutie Jordan, 65, at his home in the neighborhood of Well Quarters in Columbia, Mississippi, June 3, 2009. Lutie's home is less than 5 feet away from the abandoned chemical facility. He worked at the facility, owned by Reichhold Chemical Company in the 70s, and also during the 90s when the EPA declared the facility a Superfund site and put it on the National Priorities List. Lutie says the company hired to remediate the site instructed him to dump barrels of chemical waste in the Pearl River across town. His health problems include: an enlarged prostate, cardiac disease, osteoporosis, and fainting/dizzy spells. His live-in girlfriend, Mary Alice Connelly, died in 1995 at the age of 50 of breast cancer; she also had cancer in her spine and lungs. Photo © Becky Holladay

Photographs of Fred Loflin and Georgia Lee on Juanita Maxwell's wall in Columbia, Mississippi, June 3, 2009. Loflin, who died of lung cancer at age 61, was Juanita's uncle. Lee, who died of complications of diabetes, died at age 51. Loflin lived in the same house that Juanita lives in now, Lee lived next door. Photo © Becky Hollada

There were class action lawsuits against Reichhold, but most class members received only $750; indeed, many received as little as $169.  Those who lived in Well Quarters found their properties were worth little, and few had money to move out of the neighborhood.

An abandoned church near the entrance of the neighborhood of Well Quarters in Columbia, Mississippi, June 3, 2009. Photo © Becky Holladay

In addition to the numerous cases of death and disease in the neighborhood, the crisis has created a cycle of poor health and poverty.  There is an overall personal and community identity of failure and victimhood.  Thirty-two years after the plant was abandoned, many residents are on Medicaid, disability, unemployment, and welfare.  Many have less than a high school education.  Clearly not all the community’s problems can be blamed on the chemical company, but did it create a downward slide that started when people began to get sick?  What happens when you’re born to parents who are both too sick to work and on disability?  Does that become a significant factor in your identity? Or when you’ve been told that your life, or a family member’s life, is only worth $169, does that become your identity as well?

-Becky Holladay

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