After Brenda Songy's family moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast seven years ago, one of her twin boys began laboring to breathe, especially after he'd gotten a cold. "Nothing like that had happened before," Songy says. "It was scary."
Within a few months, she discovered that many families in the area had loved ones with cancer—too many, it seemed to her. "I had to find out whether my perception was a reality," she says. "Unfortunately, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory and the National Cancer Institute's Web site, the threat is real."
As Songy dug deeper, she found a concentration of heavy industry, a lax regulatory environment, and shockingly high rates of cancer and other maladies along the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. "Someone living in a more pristine environment might know one person with cancer," she says, "while someone living along the Gulf Coast will know 20. I don't know a family raised down here that doesn't have a loved one with cancer." Not for nothing has this area earned the nickname Cancer Coast.
Songy also discerned in the locals a trait she admires, but which she fears is harming them. "People here aren't cynical," she says. "They trust that those in positions of authority are protecting them. People tell me, 'You can't live without industry,' not realizing their cancers, their children's developmental disabilities, and their reproductive disorders might be due to toxins. Many people believe these are acts of God."
Among the diseases and disorders that have risen alarmingly in this generation: Autism rates up 1,000 percent; childhood asthma up 200 percent; male birth defects up 200 percent; leukemia up 62 percent; childhood brain cancer up 40percent; pre-term birth rates up 23 percent; infertility up 5-10 percent; birth defects up 3-5 percent; sperm counts down 1 pecent per year.
DuPont, Chevron, Northrup/Grumman, and Mississippi Power all operate chemical plants, refineries, or power plants in Jackson County, where Songy lives. According to corporate records submitted to the EPA, industries in the county have produced more than 1.5 billion pounds of toxins since the early 1990s. DuPont's facility in neighboring Harrison County produced more than 24 million pounds of toxins in 2004 alone.
One new chemical being discharged into the water is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a likely carcinogen that is a byproduct of the manufacture of Teflon and other repellents such as Goretex and food packaging like popcorn bags and pizza boxes. In 2005 DuPont received the highest administrative fine in EPA history, $16.5 million, for covering up problems with PFOA. Because it is now being found in the blood of an estimated 95 percent of Americans, the EPA says PFOA should be eliminated from the environment by 2015, yet it claims it has no authority to regulate the chemical. The state says it doesn't, either.
In addition, says Songy, telomer alcohol, also part of the repellent-making process, is trucked from New Jersey to Dupont's plant in Pascagoula (Jackson County), for the sole purpose of removing PFOA, after which the product is shipped back north. "New Jersey gets the coating product, Mississippi gets the waste."
Songy and fellow chapter volunteers Becky Gillette and Paula Vassey have been working with Club organizer Louie Miller to publicize the problem and mobilize local opposition, speaking and recruiting others to speak at public hearings, writing letters-to-the-editor, and lobbying for a moratorium on PFOA.
In September, Songy appealed to the Pascagoula City Council to enact a local ordinance banning PFOA, buttressing her presentation with EPA and National Cancer Institute charts showing the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the top 10 percent nationally in inventoried toxic releases and cancer mortality rates. "They chose to do nothing," she says, "even though most of them have lost family members to cancer."
Many locals acknowledge the problem and tell Songy they appreciate her efforts, but many others don't want to hear about it. "Don't say anything bad about Mississippi Power," one man told her when she engaged him about air pollution from the Pascagoula plant. "My daddy raised us working for Mississippi Power." Songy says it's unfortunate, but when she says she's with the Sierra Club, "a lot of people think I'm a feminist liberal and immediately shut down."
For that reason, she is thrilled that Robert Hardy, a retired naval commander, died-in-the-wool Republican, and former corporate executive with eight incidences of cancer in his immediate family, has chosen to help lead the PFOA fight. This January, Hardy and United Steelworkers consultant Rick Abraham joined Songy in traveling to Jackson, the state capital, to lobby for a PFOA moratorium. State Representative Jamie Franks (D), chair of the Water Conservation Committee, introduced a bill, but it was shot down. Louie Miller is continuing to press for an amendment to another bill.
Songy is planning a town hall meeting in Pascagoula this spring on PFOA discharge into local waterways. One way she hopes to spur local action is by focusing on PFOA's impact on children. "If hell has no wrath like a woman scorned, try threatening her children. This battle has just begun."
Learn more about what the Sierra Club is doing to promote safe and healthy communities and fight toxic pollution.
Photos used with permission.