Pascagoula residents push for property buyout following more reports of strong industry odor

Pascagoula residents fight for better air quality.
Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 7:48 PM CST
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PASCAGOULA, Miss. (WLOX) - A group of concerned citizens living near the Cherokee subdivision in Pascagoula are fighting for better air quality in the Flagship City by teaming up with a national organization full of promises.

“Every one of these folks have been contacted,” Barbara Weckesser told WLOX, pointing to a list of Mississippi leaders. “They’re our representatives.”

Weckesser lives on Cherokee Drive nearby large industrial plants that have also called Pascagoula home for decades. She and her neighbors have complained about an irritating smell for many years, but they do not feel like anyone is listening.

“Why let these people continue to live in this environment? This has gone on since 2010,” she said. “You know you have a big problem, and it’s getting worse.”

Over the years, Weckesser and other neighbors like Julie Hambey, who moved to Mohawk Avenue about 30 years ago, have taken air monitoring and testing on themselves. They also performed a health survey in the area back in January 2021.

“It’s hard because the kids want to go outside and play. And when I do let them play outside, you know, then that night they’re hacking and coughing or runny nose,” Hambey said. “It’s something, I mean, we’ve kind of gotten used to it. But then, you come back to reality and say, ‘Oh, you know, there’s that smell again. You know, they are polluting the air. We can’t breathe fresh air.’”

“Yes, because that’s what it does to you,” Weckesser added. “It makes your lips go numb.”

They weren’t the only residents who experienced it last week. Calls rang into the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

“When we get the volume of complaints that we did this time, we knew something was going on, and we’re still investigating what happened,” Executive Director Chris Wells said.

Wells said his agency took 600 readings in over 60 locations last week. But on Tuesday, they’re still unable to track down the source.

“Chevron Refinery is the facility that we believe was having the issue this time,” he said. “There are other industries in that area.”

WLOX visited Chevron to find out what’s being done at the industry level.

“In this case, we began the air monitoring during the time that the odor complaints were made aware,” Corporate Affairs Manager Alan Sudduth said. “And we found that there were no detection of those chemicals that we monitor.”

Chevron workers immediately implemented their odor response plan and tested the atmosphere for multiple gases.

The Refinery tests for a variety of substances, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), including benzene and other combustible gases.

MDEQ monitors the community for hydrogen sulfide, VOCs, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, hexane and ammonia.

Chevron has a direct number they urge you to call if you smell something concerning: 228-938-4600.

“I think there’s been a good effort on many different stakeholders to address the residents’ concern about the health impact that the odors may have,” Sudduth said. “We still need to work on the nuisance side of it.”

Neighbors like Weckesser and Hambey worry that the odor is more than a nuisance. That’s why they’re now taking matters into their own hands and working with a national environmental nonprofit called Buy-In Community Planning.

“Some local governments will be more proactive about saying, you know, ‘Oh, we understand that you have these air quality issues,’ you know, ‘What can we do to help you?’ And that has not really happened in this subdivision,” co-founder Osamu Kumasaka said.

Now hired by Buy-In and supplied with door hangers, tablets and a $2,000 grant, the residents are preparing to survey their own neighborhood in hopes of getting state and local “buy-in” for a property buyout.

“We’ll ask them, you know, if they’re interested in moving, what kinds of assistance they might need if they are, and where they might want to go,” Kumasaka said.

After the survey, Kumasaka said he will also attempt to work with local leaders to assist with applying for federal funding that is available for an environmental buyout.

“It’s important to us that we take our cues from, you know, folks who’ve actually lived in these neighborhoods and have had to bear the brunt of these environmental impacts,” he said.

MDEQ has been awarded a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for year-long air monitoring in the Cherokee subdivision area. According to Wells, that funding is still on the way.

In the meantime, residents will soon begin surveying 200 households over the next two months.

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