Cuevas has counted 65 deaths in her immediate area, "all to cancer, mostly too young." She attributes this alarming spate of fatal illnesses and a local epidemic of neuromuscular diseases to toxic pollution from the DuPont chemical plant in nearby DeLisle, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Cuevas' son, who worked at the plant, is now disabled and on dialysis.
"DuPont says they've done no wrong," she says, "but it has to be DuPont." Cuevas says her tap water smells, and the water in her toilet is black and greasy; she bleaches it every week, and only drinks bottled water at home. She gets painful blisters on her skin, which she was told might be a result of showering; an attorney advised her not to take hot baths. "DuPont's old dump had no abiding laws to monitor it, and they dumped a lot of bad stuff in there over the years. A new trailer park came in recently near the old dump and now a lot of those people are getting sick too."
But thanks to the dedication of a handful of Sierra Club volunteers and a local populace that finally got fed up, in July the supervisors of Harrison County-where DeLisle is located-voted unanimously to ask the Army Corps of Engineers to deny DuPont a permit to expand its DeLisle plant and convert a nearby wetland into a toxic waste landfill.
"I see DuPont as a killing field in this community," says Mississippi Chapter Co-Chair Rose Johnson. "People are getting sicker and sicker and even dying from DuPont's stubbornness to reduce pollution emissions from their DeLisle plant. Up until now, whatever DuPont has asked for, they've gotten. For the first time, local elected officials have had the courage to say 'No!' to the state's biggest polluter."
Johnson recalls that at a public hearing in Harrison County this spring on DuPont's proposed expansion, the first people the company trotted out to speak in favor of the plans were the president of the local school board and the principal of the local elementary school. Sierra Club Gulf Coast Group Chair Brenda Songy was in attendance as well. When it came her turn to speak, Songy turned to the two educators and asked, "Would you take money from drug pushers? Of course not. Then why would you take money from poison pushers? You should be ashamed."
DuPont's Delisle plant, which opened in 1979, annually spews out more than 12 million pounds of toxic waste into the air, the groundwater, and the adjacent Bay of St. Louis. "You used to be able to go fishing and crabbing in the bay," says Sherry Cuevas. "Not anymore."
Like most Harrison County residents, Cuevas had never been involved in any kind of environmental or community activism before now. But two years ago, perceiving the threat DuPont posed, she joined the Sierra Club and the Mississippi Environmental Recovery Alliance. She now regularly attends Club meetings, and this spring she circulated petitions and spoke out against DuPont's toxic landfill plans at public meetings.
"Speaking out is new to me," Cuevas says, "but this campaign has gotten a lot of local people involved. Now people here trust the Sierra Club who might not have before."
Earlier this year when DuPont made public its permit application to turn a living wetland into a toxic waste pit, Mississippi Chapter activists traveled to Jackson, the state capital, to research the company's record of environmental compliance activities in the state. Through the Freedom of Information Act, they discovered that DuPont had been violating its existing air permit for 15 years and was seeking a "retroactive" permit to legalize those higher emissions, while also requesting permits for a major expansion that would increase pollution-this in a county that has received an "F" rating from the American Lung Association for poor air quality.
Retired oceanographic scientist and Harrison County resident Jerry Landrum was one of the activists who traveled to Jackson. "I took three 4'-by-8' sheets of foam insulation and covered them with Xeroxed records documenting the impact of 25 years' of pollution from the DeLisle plant," he says. "Then this spring I brought them to public hearings to demonstrate factually the amount of pollution we're talking about." Landrum also circulated petitions opposing the landfill to local businesses and neighborhood groups that garnered more than 1,000 signatures. Working with Johnson, Songy, and others, he helped sound the alarm about DuPont's expansion plans.
As a result, when DuPont held public hearings in Harrison County this spring (as required by law), they were well-attended by concerned locals. "This wouldn't have happened without the Sierra Club's involvement," Rose Johnson says. "The Club helped get us a grant to mail a flyer to 65,000 households advertising the first public hearing on DuPont's application to increase air emissions. Local groups here just don't have the resources to do that kind of blanket mailing. It really helped us turn the tide."
One local resident who spoke out-a retired colonel from the Army Corps of Engineers who now runs a waste remediation business-told the board, "Before now I wouldn't have been caught dead with these people [the Sierra Club]. But I know the effects of dioxins, and I know the problems associated with trying to contain toxins."
"I realize it makes DuPont's job easier to paint a picture of environmentalists as anti-industry and on the fringe," Brenda Songy testified at a hearing this spring. "But corporate behavior in the past few years has been so egregious that many mainstream individuals such as myself are joining their cause. I am a graduate of a business college and an advocate of corporations making a profit by serving their customers. But when a corporation changes its focus from serving its customers to serving its profit margins, the public has an obligation to speak out."
In June, at a public hearing on the wetlands fill and landfill permits, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors came out in opposition to the landfill plan. The board subsequently came under intense pressure from DuPont and other area business leaders, who threatened that if DuPont wasn't given what they wanted, the plant would close and 1,000 local jobs would be lost. But the strong-arm tactics failed, and on July 13 the board voted unanimously to send letters to regulatory officials opposing the plant expansion and the toxic landfill.
"DuPont is destroying our most valuable asset-nature-and harming
our precious children," says Rose Johnson. "The Sierra
Club is fighting for more stringent regulations governing pollution
emissions from DuPont, and this campaign has really increased our
credibility around here. We applaud the tenacity of the DeLisle
community in their efforts to protect themselves from big polluters."
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