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November 2000 Planet Main
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  November 2000 Features:
Black and White Stand Together in Mississippi
2000 Endorsements
Sprawl Report: 50 State Survey
Sneaking Under Big Pig's Snout
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The Planet
Black and White Stand Together in Mississippi

Club Partners With Church, People of Color to Fight 'Big Pig'

by Jenny Coyle

I'd never heard a minister pray for the Sierra Club from the pulpit, and I certainly didn't expect to hear it in rural Mississippi.

It was an August Sunday at the Oakland Missionary Baptist Church in Crawford, a tiny community in the epicenter of Mississippi's hog country.

There were about 30 Sierra Club folk - all but two of us white - sitting in the middle of the African American congregation. The air conditioning took the steam out of the 100-degree heat, but I still waved my church bulletin like a fan and the Rev. Joe Bowen, dressed in a suit, used a hand towel to wipe his forehead.

The front of the church was alive with a band, a choir of men dressed in white suits, singing elders, women who erupted occasionally into spiritual ecstasy and other women dressed in white who quietly linked hands in a circle of safety around them.

During the hour and a half worship service, Rev. Bowen prayed for God to bless the Sierra Club and spoke fondly about our work in the region. He gently chided our group several times to "loosen up," particularly when the band and choir were bringing down the house and the congregation members were up on their feet, clapping and swaying. "If you can dance for the devil," the reverend called out, "then you can dance for the Lord!"

Getting a crowd of white activists into an African American church in the deep South in August proves the organizational finesse of Louie Miller, legislative director for the Mississippi Chapter, and John McCown, the Club's lead environmental justice grassroots organizer. Fighting concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in politically weak communities is new work for the Sierra Club - part of its Clean Water Campaign - and McCown and Miller are the pioneers. Their work was recognized with a national Club award last year.

Now they'd drawn Sierra Club volunteers in the Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee to the northeast corner of Mississippi for a two-day workshop to learn - along with local residents - how to fight massive hog factories. The committee makes it a point to meet at least once a year in communities impacted by environmental injustice to learn how the Club might lend organizing assistance.

Miller and McCown wanted to demonstrate the Club's commitment to the African American community, and at the same time introduce white volunteers to the world of their partners in this battle. That's why they took us to church.

"This black community is driven by the church," Miller said. "It's the venue for political **and** spiritual decision-making - they don't see a difference. If black and white will work together, then we'll do it through the church."

He continued: "That John is black and I am white is fundamental to the success of our organizing in the South. Together, John and I can cross cultural divides to reach more people who are being impacted. The worst nightmare of any legislator or corporate official is to see these two cultures united, to see black and white folks standing together at corporate headquarters or in the halls of a capitol, demonstrating or lobbying on the same issue."

Never was this more evident than in May 1999, when the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality held a public hearing on its plan to exempt industrial hog factories from air-quality standards.

"We had about 300 people there -black and white, expert witnesses, activists from impacted communities in other states," Miller told me with a sparkle in his eye. "Our emphasis was on public health, particularly the medical problems that come from breathing the hydrogen sulfide created by giant waste lagoons. The DEQ wasn't ready for that. We whooped 'em bad at that hearing."

Hydrogen sulfide is a toxic chemical regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act in places like oil fields - but not on hog farms, Miller said. Chronic exposure can cause severe problems for asthmatics and others who are predisposed to respiratory ailments, he said. It can also affect neurological development in children.

As the state Department of Health investigates new air standards for CAFOs, a moratorium bars any new hog factories in Mississippi. And the Sierra Club is working to clean up existing factories with a class-action lawsuit representing 500 residents whose health, property or lifestyle has been damaged by animal factories. It's a nuisance suit, and the plaintiffs are seeking $75 million.

We heard from some of them during the workshop.

Jeanette Unger, a nurse who fit my image of a Southern belle, said she and her husband, a retired Presbyterian minister, bought a five-bedroom home on a 15-acre lake for their retirement years. They had a gazebo built with the dream that their daughter would someday marry there, overlooking the lake.

Then a hog factory went in three-quarters of a mile away, and the stench became unbearable; the couple could not cope with going outside. Unger developed headaches, sinus problems, a sore throat and a cough so nasty she requested a TB test.

They sold their house for $30,000 less than the already rock-bottom price they were asking and moved to a nearby community.

Another local resident, Everett Kennard, said that when his daughter comes home from college, she stays with her aunt in town and refuses to bring friends to the family farm where she grew up.

"She's too embarrassed," said Kennard, whose voice is gruff from breathing the contaminated air from a 7,000-hog facility adjacent to his farm. His son is asthmatic, as is his elderly mother, and both have suffered as a result. The family sued the contract farmer who runs the CAFO, demanding air-quality measures, and won at every level including the Mississippi Supreme Court. But the CAFO has been permitted to operate in the meantime, and the air-quality measures are not yet in place.

"We've won, and nothing's happened," said Kennard.

Woodrow Clark, who gets more headaches now and worries about his father who's on oxygen, said, "You wake up smelling pig poop, you eat your breakfast smelling pig poop. We have 900 members in my church, but if you came to it I'd be embarrassed, because it's a beautiful church, but everybody would be saying, 'What's that smell?' Just cruise through in your car with the windows down and tell me it's not a problem."

They no longer cook outside on the 330-acre farm where Barry Martin grows soybeans, cotton and wheat. "We used to have a garden, but it's bad when you have to put a handkerchief over your nose to pick beans. It makes me mad because we've been there three generations and I'm not going anywhere," he said.

About a year and a half ago Martin saw trucks dumping hog carcasses at the local landfill, and through Miller alerted Mississippi state Sen. Deborah Dawkins, a long-time Sierra Club activist. Dawkins obtained public records and learned that from January to April 1999, there were 1.3 million pounds of dead hogs dumped at that landfill. These were hogs that died before they got to the slaughterhouse due to heat, disease or crowded conditions. The dumping continues.

"We're the cesspool of the South with all these hog farms," Martin said. "I appreciate what the Sierra Club has done, and we'll stick together on this. I'm not interested in money, I just want my way of life back."

Then came a statement that nearly moved me to tears, from a local African American resident in the audience who'd listened quietly to the others, and then asked for the microphone. Someone had just commented about why many African Americans, particularly older ones, were hesitant to get involved in the fight against a corporation like Prestage Farms.

"They're scared that they'll lose what they do have," said Howard Smart with a steady gaze at the audience. "If you seen what they done went through, you'll see why. Some people think Prestage is too big to fight. But if we stand together, it'll come down. It's coming down. Whatever support I can be I'd like to be, knowing that with God we can do all things."

Rev. Bowen and his congregation will help see to that.

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