Grenada homeowners fighting contaminated land ‘cut off at the pass’ by federal judge

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Rylan Townsend holds protest signs during a rally concerning the contaminated groundwater under Eastern Heights residents’ homes in Grenada, Miss., Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

GRENADA – Residents of the Eastern Heights community, which is adjacent to the Grenada Manufacturing facility, and their attorneys say they can prove through a pending lawsuit that former plant operators knowingly contaminated the neighborhood’s groundwater with toxic chemicals.

But in February and March, U.S. District Court Judge Debra Brown of Greenville wrote orders excluding much of the residents’ evidence and witness testimony — to the dismay of local leaders.

“The ruling that this judge handed down is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” Grenada city manager Trey Baker said to a group of residents May 29. “I have never seen a decision that frankly takes a plaintiff’s entire rights away from them. I mean, they can put up expert witnesses but you can’t?”

The orders pave a difficult path forward for the residents, whose goal is to move off the land many of them believe has caused their loved ones to become sick and, in some cases, die. The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that while known carcinogen trichloroethylene, or TCE, has been found in the community at elevated levels, it does not present an immediate threat to the residents’ health.

The agency added the site to the national Superfund list — which gives it greater priority for cleanup — in September. The EPA did not respond to Mississippi Today’s emailed questions for this story.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Fred Hubbard, an Eastern Heights Subdivision resident, is photographed inside of his home in Grenada, Miss., Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Hubbard says he has experienced health issues due to the contaminated groundwater in the subdivision.

Cleanup efforts at the old hubcap manufacturing plant, which had been using and dumping cancer-causing chemicals TCE and hexavalent chromium, began almost 30 years ago. Residents didn’t learn they’d been living on top of toxic groundwater until 2015. In 2016, residents filed suit, alleging the toxins had migrated into their neighborhood and made their hard-earned homes worthless.

In 2017, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood filed a similar suit alleging the companies’ actions damaged a natural resource of the state. Last year, a top Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 official called the three-decade-long regulatory reaction a “colossal failure.”

It’s a simple assessment. Just listen to 11-year-old Eastern Heights resident Rylan Townsend tell it.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Ethel Whaley holds a sign as she protests during a rally concerning the contaminated groundwater under Eastern Heights residents’ homes in Grenada, Miss., Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

“They ain’t doing their job,” Townsend said, referring to Meritor, the commercial vehicle part supplier that never operated the plant but later assumed responsibility for cleaning up the contamination. “They need to get up and start moving because they’re probably just sitting somewhere sleep or doing something else, instead of actually working and trying to help the people in our neighborhood.”

Today, residents like Johnnie Williams — who lost her son to liver disease when he was 17 — are no closer to receiving help to relocate.

“What if you had a child that lived in that contamination? How would you feel if you lost your child?  How would you feel? Do you think that’s fair to people? To lose their children? To lose their loved ones? No it’s not fair,” Williams said, choking back tears. “And it’s like you all don’t care. You all don’t care about us still being there. So I just think it’s wrong.”

Williams said she wants to share her story before a jury of her peers, an opportunity that’s growing unlikely.

Many of the families in Eastern Heights are dealing with health problems they believe were caused or exacerbated from exposure to the toxins. Out of 225 longtime residents of the neighborhood, attorneys identified 30 percent or 68 who have developed cancer, according to a 2016 Clarion Ledger article.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, which was used as a degreasing agent in the plant, can cause toxic effects to the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, immune system, reproductive system and is linked to many cancers, especially liver cancer. Hexavalent chromium — the chemical Erin Brockovich is famous for uncovering in Hinkley, Calif., a case that was made into a film starring Julia Roberts — can attack the respiratory tract and inhalation can increase a person’s risk of lung cancer.

“I think we know what it does to the body. We know it’s in the ground. We know it’s adjacent or maybe in the subdivision, around the plant out there,” said Grenada Mayor Billy Collins. “Why have we waited so long to now recognize that we need to clean it up? A lot of people are dying in that subdivision of cancer and other diseases. I think we all know it’s a problem and we can’t get anybody to address the problem.”

Grenada, a town of 12,700, is slightly more black than white and nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty. The median household income is $32,000. Eastern Heights is almost entirely black.

“If we were white, I believe we would be treated differently,” resident Darrell Hubbard said. “That’s the fact that we’re living in … We should be gone. We should be out of that community and it should be no problem to get us out.”

The pending lawsuit, which involves 50 homeowners and is in the settlement phase, only deals with property damages. Residents who had cases related to health problems have settled, according to the residents’ attorney Ted Lyon.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Johnnie Williams rallies with other Eastern Heights Subdivision residents in Grenada, Miss., Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

“When you’re talking about property damage cases, you can only get so much under Mississippi law. That’s one of the problems we had,” Lyon said.

Lyon alleged he was prepared to show how former plant operator Textron had knowingly dumped the chemicals that eventually migrated to the neighborhood, but “that’s were the judge cut us off at the pass.”

Meritor has offered payments matching the value of each residents’ home, but after the attorneys recoup their expenses, the payments are not enough for relocation, Lyon said. Meritor sent Mississippi Today a statement saying it could not comment on the lawsuit, but that the company “has always placed a high value on social responsibility.” Meritor’s local attorney, Phillip Sykes of Butler Snow, did not return a call to Mississippi Today.

“What has happened to these folks in this neighborhood is a tragedy and it’s wrong but I can’t change Mississippi law,” Lyon said. “We’re not at all happy with the courts rulings and we intend, if we go to trial, to appeal many of those rulings and think we will prevail on an appeal but that will be several years down the road. Many of these people are elderly. They don’t have that time.”

Some residents have opted to take the settlement while others are prepared to continue fighting.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Shay Harris talks to Grenada Mayor Billy F. Collins before he prepares to speak to other Eastern Heights Subdivision residents during a rally concerning the contaminated groundwater under their homes in Grenada, Miss., Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

“It’s time for the judge and the EPA and whoever else is a part of this is to do what is right for us,” said resident Charlie Mack, a Vietnam veteran and retired fifth-grade math and science teacher. “The best thing is just get us out of there. Give us back what we truly deserve. We paid for those houses and we’re paying for those houses and we think we deserve what is right. We know we deserve what is right.”

Collins said he believes the contamination at the manufacturing site could have broader implications for the city.

“I think everyone out there, homes need to be bought up, they need to be relocated and we need to fence it off and let it be there,” Collins said.

Townsend has lived with his grandparents in the north Grenada subdivision since he was 7 years old. Wearing an entirely red outfit, from his sunglasses to his socks and basketball shoes, Townsend spent the afternoon of May 29 walking around the downtown square in Grenada with his neighbors, asking for justice.

“It feels pretty good,” Townsend said. “I’ve read the book about Dr. Martin Luther King and I’ve watched the movie, so it sort of feels like that.”

He held signs stating: “Meritor Do The Right Thing” and “We would really love to have our community whole. We know you could hear, but won’t listen.”

“I have to worry about him,” Hubbard, Townsend’s grandfather, said, “just being on the land, facing what we have to face. It’s his future that I’ve got to worry about now.”