IN MARCH 1977, an explosion destroyed a chemical factory and released a toxin-laden cloud in the small town of Columbia, Mississippi. In the aftermath, thousands of drums of chemical waste—which would later be found to contain more toxins, including the ingredients for Agent Orange—were buried on the factory site and at local landfills. Leaking into the groundwater, the chemicals began to cause cancer, miscarriages, and other diseases in the poor, largely African-American community nearby; serious problems remained after a Superfund cleanup in the late 1980s.
Enter Charlotte Keys, an evangelist, Columbia native, and founder of Jesus People Against Pollution, a group dedicated to environmental justice for the people of Columbia. She talked with Sojourners assistant editor Elizabeth Palmberg about her town’s journey, the larger environmental movement, and how she keeps the faith when times are tough.
Elizabeth Palmberg: Tell us how Jesus People Against Pollution was born.
Charlotte Keys: We started the organization in January 1992; it was born out of frustrations with an environmental injustice crisis. Reichhold Chemical Company, owned by Dainippon in Japan, had moved into our community in 1975. In March 1977, we had a major explosion that wrecked the facility in the heart of our little town. We saw a big cloud come over the area, and we had no idea of the extent of health damages wrought from it.
In 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency came to our community. People were calling in and complaining about stuff oozing out of the ground; the dirt on the ground would literally catch fire. They decided in October ’86 to put it on the Superfund hazardous waste sites list.