John Johnson, at the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, along with other Turkey Creek/North Gulfport residents and their legal representatives prepared to present oral arguments before the Court of Appeals Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, regarding the Department of Defense's plans to build on wetlands in their area, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

North Gulfport residents came to Jackson on Wednesday as part of a years-long effort to block the building of a military storage facility that would require construction on contaminated property and filling in wetlands that protect nearby homes from flooding.

The case goes back to 2019, when the state’s environmental permit board signed off on a Mississippi State Port Authority proposal for the project. The Port Authority wants to use its land in North Gulfport, near the historic Black community of Turkey Creek, to build a storage facility for the U.S. Department of Defense that would act as a link between the state ports and Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg.

After multiple failed attempts to appeal the permit board’s decision, the residents — along with a local church and nonprofit — have brought the case to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments on Wednesday afternoon.

The appellants, represented by ACLU-MS and Earthjustice, are arguing that the Mississippi Environmental Quality Permit Board failed to consider whether the storage facility would be used to keep explosive ammunition, which they say would pose a contamination risk to nearby public waters. Attorneys working with the residents only learned of the potential to store ammunition through a records request after the permit board approved the project.

Monique Harden, director of Law and Public Policy for Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, speaks with media Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, before Turkey Creek/North Gulfport residents and their legal representatives present oral arguments before the Court of Appeals regarding the Department of Defense’s plans to build on wetlands in their area. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Residents also oppose the project because of its potential to increase flooding, as construction would require filling in over three acres of wetlands.

The proposed property for the facility is the former home of a fertilizer company that operated in the early 1900s. In 2009, the state ordered a remediation plan for the property after finding illegal levels of arsenic and lead. As part of the plan, the contaminated area has been capped off with a 10-inch layer of clay and a 4-inch layer of topsoil.

During Wednesday’s arguments, Earthjustice attorney Rodrigo Cantu stressed that while the permit board issued a public notice before approving the project, the notice did not mention the facility could be used to hold explosive ammunition. The ammunition, Cantu said, could contaminate state waters through leaking or explosions.

The appellants argued that, if the permit board didn’t consider the ammunition storage in its approval of the project, then the board couldn’t have properly assessed the project’s environmental risks.

Judge David Neil McCarty, one of three judges hearing the case, questioned whether the concern was too theoretical, given that the proposed project only said it could hold ammunition, not that it necessarily would.

On the other side, permit board attorney Scott Johnson argued that the initial advertisement of the project — which said that the facility would be used to store cargo and equipment shipments — implied that weapons and ammunition could be included.

The property of the proposed military storage site in North Gulfport. Credit: Monique Harden

Other environmental concerns in North Gulfport

Even years before the military site proposal, North Gulfport residents have fought with the Port Authority over how it wants to use the contaminated land where the fertilizer company used to be.

In 2013, the Port Authority attempted to move freezers used to store chickens to the property, after the port’s storage area was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the same residents pushed back then as well, before the Port Authority eventually abandoned the idea.

Then last year, Gulf Coast advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation over a proposed connector road, saying the project would threaten wetlands and worsen flooding in the Forest Heights, North Gulfport and Turkey Creek communities.

“All of these are tied together, and all of it affects the minority community,” said John Johnson, one of the appellants and a North Gulfport resident for the last 52 years. “(The permit board) and the Port Authority have not been considerate to the people in that community.”

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.