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.
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.
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.
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?