Bringing Climate Justice to Rural Mississippi

Chemical slick. Photo courtesy Adam Mooz/
Chemical slick. Photo courtesy Adam Mooz/

Columbia, Mississippi is a small rural town most known as the home of Walter Payton, NFL player for the Chicago Bears. It is also my home — the place where I was born and raised.

On January 1, 1992, Jesus People Against Pollution was founded in Columbia. Residents had discovered that the town had been heavily polluted from the Newsom Brothers/Old Reichhold Chemical Company facility, now closed but still registering high levels of hazardous waste — what the EPA calls a “Superfund site.”

In March 1977, the plant exploded and wrecked the facility and surrounding community. The Old Reichhold Chemical Company abandoned their facility and hired an inexperienced contractor to dispose of the remaining toxins left on the site. 

When the EPA investigated the area in 1984, it reported finding contaminated ponds and soil, as well as 600 surface drums. It was also believed that the company had dangerous toxins in its possession, including the chemical Agent Orange — known for its use in the Vietnam War, and the inordinate incidents of cancer among soldiers who came in contact with it.

After the 1977 explosion, the city of Columbia and the surrounding county had opened landfills where much of the toxic poisoning was dumped. But Columbia also experienced major floods at that time, which washed toxic waste offsite and into the community. 

The Newsom Brothers/Old Reichhold Chemical Company Superfund site was deleted from the EPA’s list of Superfund sites in 2000 with the understanding that cleanup of the site was complete. Yet the Columbia continues to deal with the environmental health impacts that stemmed from this company’s gross negligence. 

Years later we are better realizing the impacts of climate change and its link to our battle against toxic dumping. 

When Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Isaac flooded through, public health threats increased. Toxic agents from nearby landfills were unearthed and flowing freely through our streets. The help that came to our little rural town was far slower and far less than help deployed for more affluent parts of the state.  The children, elderly, disabled, and poor are among most vulnerable populations in the state, yet Columbia received less financial support from the federal agencies. 

During Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Isaac many vulnerable people, mostly people of color, ended up without any financial support to deal with their loss of homes, health, food, and clothing. Trailer homes were made available, but they had formaldehyde in them. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.  So, the trailers themselves posed health threats to people who had nothing without them.  This is a disgrace.  

The question I am left with as I continue to organize my community through the ministry of Jesus People Against Pollution is this: “When will the funds be placed at the grassroots level to help resolve issues associated with climate change and environmental degradation?” 

The time is now to secure environment and climate justice for underserved communities.  The abuse of children, the elderly, the handicapped and the poor must stop.  This stopping can start when corporations, government agencies, and funders — public and private — empower grassroots community leaders to allocate funds on the ground as needed.

We must remember scripture: “May those who sow with tears reap with shouts of joy.” (Psalm 126:5) And, “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.” (Psalms 41:1) And,“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.” (Proverbs 19:17)

Pastor Dr. Charlotte L. Keys is founder of Jesus People Against Pollution, an environmental justice organization based in Columbia, MS. For more information about JPAP, see this video

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