Stafford: Want to Start Work This Year on New Ditch
Some Citizens Claim Community Action Group isn’t Keeping them Informed
City officials met with representatives of the Memphis Town Community Action Group and many angry community members Tuesday night to discuss drainage issues in areas around the former Kerr-McGee site.
The meeting hall at Genesis Church was packed with residents who claim that they are plagued with recurring drainage and sewer issues. Mayor Robert Smith, Columbus Light and Water Executive Director Todd Gale and City Engineer Kevin Stafford all fielded questions; City Attorney Jeff Turnage was present but did not speak.
Gale began by speaking to concerns about drainage around 23rd and 24th streets, as well as complaints about iron in the water.
“I don’t need to tell you that we’ve gotten a lot of rain over the past several weeks,” Gale said. “But I know that’s no excuse. We’re especially having problems in the area of 23rd and 24th streets. Right now we’re checking the manholes, we’re checking all around the bypass, we’re checking at the site where the old apartments were torn down. We have spent $10,000 or $12,000 in monitoring the old pump station at Martin Luther King. We’re checking the drainage in the area and making sure nothing is crossed up with the sanitary sewer lines. We’re working on it, that’s what I want you to know. If you have any problems whatsoever with sewer backing up into your home, please call our emergency number, 243-7440.
“As far as the water discoloration, you may have read in the paper where we’re required to go around and test fire hydrants to maintain the fire rating,” Gale explained. “We’re trying to do all that annually. The pipes within the city…once you change the flow direction, it picks up some iron. The water that we have…is real high in its iron content. Over time that iron builds up in the pipes, and when you turn on the fire hydrant the flow changes and it stirs up the iron. Again, if you get any kind of discoloration in the water pick up the phone and call us and we’ll do what we can to assist you.”
Scherrel Sturdivant complained about water backing up in her 27th Street home.
“I lived there since 1990,” she said. “Ever since I’ve been there I’ve had problems. If it rains two or three days in a row, you can’t flush the commode. You got to go to somebody else’s house to use the facilities. I complained about 15 years ago, and they told me the sewer system wasn’t big enough to hold the water. I feel like somebody needs to do something about it because we pay too much money down in there. It’s every house in my neighborhood, not just me, that has that problem. Most of them can’t use their facilities. The City of Columbus should do something about that.”
“We’ll get to it,” Gale said. “I’ll have to go out and see exactly what you’re talking about.”
[Numerous other residents had identical complaints. For the sake of brevity, I won’t reproduce them all here. Mr. Gale asked the affected residents to make a list of names and contact information, and said he would work with them to try to identify the problem. – Brian Jones]
Weatherby Sanders Sr. took the city to task for drainage issues.
“The people who should take responsibility for this drainage are all looking the other way,” he said. “They have their eyes on other things, but we live in this area. I wrote a letter to the city, to the Voice of the People, almost two years ago complaining about that but they haven’t done a thing. The water is backing up and it’s damaging 14th Avenue. I don’t know why our public officials are looking the other way. If one of them came out and ran in that ditch maybe they would wake up. There is no excuse for this flood. They should do something to help us because we pay taxes like everybody else. I hope our city officials – who many of us had confidence in when they were running for election – will help us, but not they’ve gone to sleep and are looking the other way. Time is passing on, and that ditch is getting worse and worse.”
“You’re asking when is the city going to wake up,” Smith said. “We already woke up. We’ve worked with the CAG group, with the Environmental Protection Agency, with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, for the last two years. We have made more progress in the last two years than has been made in the last 15 or 20. Money is the issue in a lot of these situations.”
Several people in the crowd began to call out questions.
“The problem some of you are having didn’t just happen tonight,” Smith said. “From the city’s standpoint, if we weren’t concerned we wouldn’t be here. From the drainage standpoint, we are going to look into your concerns and try to come up with some solutions. The majority of the water in this area, especially around the IC Cousins area, comes from Cady Hills. To relieve that problem, we need some kind of retention pond, but you’d have to get access from Al Puckett, the gentleman who owns the Brickyard.”
Smith asked Stafford to explain the drainage situation and work done to date.
“The drainage that he’s talking about starts in Cady Hills and goes to the Brickyard and then down 14th Avenue,” he said. “Then it goes along Seventh Avenue and out Propst Park. The city identified that as a problem back in 1970, before I was even born. This basin alone is going to cost about $15 million to repair. That’s the kind of money we’re talking about. We’ve gotten $1.5 million. We’ve made some improvements at Propst Park and we are slowly working upstream. We’ve got DEQ and EPA and others who are willing to put dollars in to help us to improve this basin.
“The reason that the ditch is not being maintained like it has been in the past is that as the city goes in to maintain that ditch, creosote could possibly be exposed,” he said. “That means the city has a liability for the workers who are exposed to it. Right now we have done all we can, and we are trying to figure out how to clean that up. The money that we’re getting right now…our plans are out right now for the other agencies to review. We hope we will have those plans back soon so we can get a construction project out to bid. The other thing we’ve done is put a construction schedule together. We want to start moving dirt this year, but we have to coordinate with the MDEQ, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, all those agencies we’re working with.”
Stafford said the city has looked at several options for the 14th Avenue ditch.
“We looked at an open ditch with riprap, like what you see in Propst Park,” he said. “We looked at an open concrete-lined ditch. We looked at a closed ditch. The cost for a closed ditch is almost three times the open ditch. The open ditch is going to handle a lot more water a lot more efficiently and a lot faster. I hate to see a ditch closed up because it can handle a lot less water. The concept we are going for is a concrete-lined channel. We are going to be careful to balance the water flow so that we don’t hurt anybody downstream.”
The drainage ditch will be about 23 feet wide, he said; the current ditch is about seven feet wide.
“We hope you all won’t wait until we die of old age before you do something,” Sanders said. “We want something done.”
“The money we have from the Corps sunsets in 2015,” Stafford said. “We have to spend this money by then.”
Sharon Lewis complained that there was not enough transparency in the process.
“It seems like we’ve been filibustering, and I’m sick and tired of it,” she said. “The reason why we’re here is because we have a myriad of problems. We all know there is a problem, and the problems are festering. This ditch on 14th Avenue is full of water that is going nowhere. We all know the place is contaminated and we see that our people who are our leaders care more about a ditch than about humanity. One problem is that we have the land that is contaminated, the possibility of our drinking water being contaminated and we have problems with drainage. It’s not sanitary. It’s intolerable.
“We need transparency,” she said. “The community needs to know what’s going on. We’re here this evening so that you can be informed instead of just talking to each other on the phone. We need healing in this community. We don’t need a ditch covered. What about the rest of the site? This makes us lose trust. There are people in the community who are supposed to care about us and they don’t have our interest at hand.”
“We are working on the process,” Smith said. “We’ve got to take care of the ditch before we can be concerned about the site. The holdup now is that city does not own the ditch. Before we can interfere with the ditch, there is some litigation that has to be worked out. I thought our primary reason to be here tonight was to get Todd Gale here and get the citizens concerned about the water and sewer and the drainage. We’ve heard their concerns, and hopefully we can get the citizens some relief.”
“You need to come to my house when it rains,” Sturdivant called out. “You’ve come to my house, but you haven’t been there after it rains three or four days.”
“I’m not here to argue,” Smith said. “I’m here to listen so we can try to come up with a remedy to the problem.”
CAG member Maurice Webber took the microphone from Smith and angrily defended the CAG’s actions.
“I’ve lived here for 50 years,” he said. “I’m happy to see so many faces at this meeting tonight, faces we wished we could have had here for the past 12 months. Nobody attended the meetings.”
Somebody in the audience called out, “We didn’t know about the meetings,” but Webber kept talking over them.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Excuse me. We may have been amiss in informing people that on the fourth Tuesday of the month we have a community action meeting. The fourth Tuesday of every month we meet here in this building. I don’t know what you’ve been told, why so many people are here tonight. As far as the ditch project goes, we have made plans and are sourcing money to fund the project. These are things we have been doing for the last few months. At last meeting we had I gave Sharon the minutes, and told her if she would read the minutes she would be up to speed on what we have been doing.
“We understand the flooding and sewer issues,” he said. “We are very in touch with the community whether you know it or not. We wish every person in this community would make an effort to attend the meetings. We may have been amiss in telling people that, and I think we probably should have done some public service announcements on the radio to let people know. [Just a tip: When a large crowd of angry people shows up and claims they don’t know what’s going on, you have more than just “probably” been remiss in getting the word out. – Brian Jones] Nonetheless, let’s not get away from what we are about. We are about cleaning up the site at the Kerr-McGee facility. That is what we are about. That has been my goal from day one when this thing started. Let’s get the site cleaned up. The ditch is incidental. These are byproducts of what the main goal is. Let’s not get away from that. We’re not here to take over. We don’t get paid to do this. We don’t get paid to come out here. There is no gain in this for us. Our only gain or satisfaction is to see that we get this community cleaned up. When people say the CAG is not keeping them informed, that is not true. [It would seem many people in the community would disagree with Mr. Webber. – Brian Jones] There is no money to be made by us. We are not making a dime.”
“Have you been to my house to see this drainage?” someone called out.
“That is not the CAG’s responsibility,” Webber said. “The EPA and MDEQ have done that in the past.” [Many people in the audience began to walk out at this point. – Brian Jones]
Pastor Steve Jamison, who founded the CAG, took the microphone from Webber.
“The reason that EPA is here and MDEQ is here is because the CAG and those who run it spent the time over the last five years to make sure the government came,” he said. “The government was not thinking about Columbus, Mississippi. There are those who had to go and make sure they started paying attention. That’s why we have some funding here now. I appreciate all the interest. We are all friends here. I don’t have any foes here. My first thought when I found creosote on my church site 15 years ago was to get the city cleaned up. The government is here now. We told the government that the plant sits on both sides of 14th Avenue, and that 14th Avenue is a major thoroughfare for the city. It is the main route used to take contaminants out of the city, so let’s make it our main concern.
“Nobody said a word until we got [the CAG] set up,” Jamison said. “I think that’s a cheap shot. You sit back in your homes and you do nothing until things are put in place, and then you want to take over. EPA has sanctioned only one group to deal with the Kerr-McGee site. We didn’t expect you would come up here to jump on us for five or six years of hard work. We thought you were coming up here to thank us and not be ungrateful. What is happening now is because people fought, they denied themselves, they turned down money to make sure this day will come. Let’s not fight each other. People expect us to fight each other. This is a CAG meeting, I run the CAG, and I will not allow anybody to take over. We will run this meeting peacefully. The mayor came out to talk to us, and he does not deserve to be insulted. We should work together, we are all Christians here.”
With that, the meeting adjourned.