Last week, the Mississippi Court of Appeals gave a faint signal of relief to members of one of the state’s longest serving organizations in the struggle against environmental racism. In this case, the three-judge appeals panel announced November 1 that they would “take the case under advisement,” a promise that a decision of some kind would be presented in the near future.
When Hurricane Katrina wrecked the major businesses and storage facilities on Gulfport’s waterfront in 2005, the quick solution to the problem was to elevate and expand the port area and move the totally destroyed, yet lucrative chicken processing plant and its storage bins north into the historic Black community known as Turkey Creek.
The residents of Turkey Creek, a National Historic Landmark, and the adjacent Black neighborhood of North Gulfport cried foul while demanding that the courts bar the bins of rancid and rotten chicken residue from being deposited in their pristine and florid wetlands. Organizing under the name of Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization (EEECHO), and supported by a strong legal team from ACLU and Earth Justice, which is the former legal defense fund for the Sierra Club, they won a stay initially. But the Port Authority simply called on their friends at the pro-business Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), along with the State Permit Board, and got the go-ahead again.
ACLU Mississippi President Jarvis Dortch pointed to this case as one example of the environmental racism and injustice battles that are being contested across the nation where large chemical plants in collusion with uncaring government agencies find it easy to dump their dangerous chemicals and waste materials in or near Black and Brown communities without any form of punishment.
“The residents of Gulfport are arguing that the Mississippi State Permit Board failed in its duties when it rubber stamped the Port Authority’s plan to build a military facility near a Black community, allowed unresolved concerns about the potential for explosives storage near their homes, and ignored demands for more suitable locations for the military port facility,” Dortch said. “The residents also argue that an environmental justice review is necessary to protect their historic connections to Turkey Creek.”
WE’RE AT WAR
Kathy Egland, EEECHO’s co-founder and its associate executive director, says everyone in the community knows that the fix is in and that it is the all-too-familiar racist Port of Gulfport that’s leading the polluted way.
“The Port of Gulfport is proposing a 24-hour military staging operation in the heart of the African American community,” Egland says. “It’s like we’re at war with our own country within our community. This has been going on since 2019. MDEQ granted the permit in 2019 and we have been fighting against them ever since. We had several delayed decisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our first appeal, we had to appear before the MDEQ hearing officer. So, we lost in that hearing. The next challenge was in the chancery court. And we didn’t find justice in chancery either. With ACLU and Earth Justice coming to our aid, we are now standing before the State Court of Appeals.”
Mark Lee, minister of the Anointed Temple AOH Church of God, says, “We’re very annoyed about the situation because every time something happens, they want to bring it into our community. We’ve been there since 1998. We’ve built a church, paid for it, and now we’re being invaded by a company trying to come in and cause all kinds of environmental problems that are a threat to our continued existence here.”
The biggest threat to his church and the surrounding community in North Gulfport is that of increased flooding, Lee said. The wetlands and the natural flood relief zones will be filled in and only disaster will ensue as a result, he said.
Egland says the proposed military facility will be a disservice to the many veterans who live in the Turkey Creek area.
“There’s a number of veterans with us today who served their country,” she said. “And now our country is going to be doing a disservice to them by locating this military staging operation in their neighborhood.
“This fight is against locating the military facility on the site of a former fertilizer plant that’s contaminated with lead, arsenic, and with radiation 66 times greater than the EPA limit. Once they come in and disturb that soil to construct this facility, it’s going to disturb all of those toxins that are going to go into the air, and it’s going to contaminate the water tributary. Then they’ll fill in the wetlands which will exacerbate the flooding in the nearby communities. Pastor Lee’s church is already showing signs of being impacted by the floodwaters.”
John Johnson, a member of EEECHO and one of the veterans Egland spoke of, lives in North Gulfport and is a member of the North Gulfport Land Trust. He pointed out that Turkey Creek and the North Gulfport community are older than the City of Gulfport, saying he was hopeful that the court of appeals would take the side of the threatened community in this fight.
A SPECIAL PLACE
Also anxiously awaiting the appeals panel decision is Gulfport’s Ward 3 Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines, who attended the brief hearing last Wednesday.
“Turkey Creek has a special place in history,” Hines says, “It is older than the City of Gulfport. And Gulfport has just celebrated a hundred and twenty-five years. Turkey Creek is one of the few communities where you can find a continuous group of people who are all related. The African Americans are all related, and that’s what’s so exciting.”
The Thomas and Melinda Benton House featured in the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson describes the essential role of the earliest Black investors and entrepreneurs in the Turkey Creek legacy, she said. The Benton family, for instance, was a major boon for the early economic development of the Gulfport area, bringing businesses and farmers into the area over 100 years ago, long before the City of Gulfport began to develop.
Hines’ family also has deep historical roots in Turkey Creek and in the North Gulfport community that she represents.
“What we’re concerned about is that the fertilizer plant that was closed over 50 years ago but was never mitigated, poses a major threat. Many of the toxic contaminants are still in the ground and when you unearth them, they’re going to be hazardous to the citizens suffering from asthma and other diseases. When it rains it’s going to get into the drinking water because we have pictures showing how the storm water runs off into the Turkey Creek tributary,” Hines said.
“This is a very unsafe practice. If the Department of Defense is trying to do this, I think they need to take another look.”
Hines says the military can establish its base in the industrial seaway in Gulfport, on the Naval facility, or they can locate it on the port, which has the right properties for this.
“We believe in good jobs,” she said. “But it’s about location, location, location. And this is the wrong location.”
LIFE OR DEATH
Although Turkey Creek might not strike the casual visitor as a place deserving of special attention, a brief introduction from The Turkey Creek Community Initiatives of October 2005 might bring about a greater appreciation. Founded in 1866 and named for the brackish bayou flowing through the diverse landscape with an abundance of wild turkeys, the all Black community retained its special identity throughout its 150-year-plus history. Now that stability is under threat by a kind of change that is not only unhealthy for the environment, it is potentially deadly for the entire community, including humans, plants, and animals alike.
“The Turkey Creek community’s highly valued independence and cultural continuity remained essentially undisturbed until the mid-1980s,” The Turkey Creek Community Initiatives reads. “At roughly the same time that federal authorities shut down the creosote plant (1986), an ordinance was passed locally requiring Turkey Creek residents to cap their prized water wells and tie into Harrison County water. These two important events were the first major rumblings of a new day to come. Since then, a barrage including airport expansion, annexation by Gulfport, land speculation, deforestation, wetland destruction, commercial sprawl, spot zoning and political isolation have all severely endangered this priceless gem of Mississippi and American heritage. Notably, unsightly sprawl on Highway 49 and Creosote Road has continued to spread to within feet of Turkey Creek homes and yards. Even the community’s historic cemetery, where Melinda Benton and others are buried, was largely destroyed by redevelopment in 2001. In that year, the Mississippi Heritage Trust listed the entire community as one of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historical Places.”
Imagine what a chicken processing plant and a 24-hour military alert station could do for the average neighborhood.