Warren County plants high on list of suspected dangerous’ polluters

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 18, 2000

Warren County industries ranked among the top producers in the state of chemical pollution that may affect child development and learning, according to a recent nationwide report.

Nationally, Mississippi ranked 16th worst in the study by the National Environmental Trust, a non-profit organization, in the presence of 278 specific neurotoxins suspected in a range of mental and physical deficits in children. The review, based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lists two local manufacturers among the top 10 polluters in the state.

In response to the report, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit public interest advocacy organization, is calling on Congress and the Centers for Disease Control to create a nationwide health tracking network.

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“While it’s often impossible to link a particular child’s disability to a particular chemical release, this research shows that toxic releases coming from specific industries are taking a toll on public health,” said Aaron Viles, Mississippi organizer with U.S. PIRG.

Representatives from Sen. Thad Cochran and Rep. Bennie Thompson’s offices said Thursday that the congressmen had not seen the report.

The report, released Nov. 29, compiled data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory for 1998 on developmental and neurological toxins and included a ranking of the states, and information about the top releasing counties, industries, and facilities in each of the 50 states.

Louisiana and Texas were listed as the two states that emit the most developmental and neurological toxins into the air and water.

Based on the information from the EPA, the findings indicate that Ergon Refining Inc. in Warren County is the third-largest producer of neurotoxins in the state. The International Paper Vicksburg Mill is listed fifth.

Both companies, as well as several others in Warren County, are permitted by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to release limited amounts of chemical pollutants into the air and water based on the Clean Air Act of 1970. Both are in compliance with state and federal environmental laws, but the report indicates that’s not good enough.

“If you look at the DEQ permits, they’re not very specific,” Viles said. “The public has a right to know everything that these companies produce.”

One chemical included in the study that is released in the largest quantities in Warren County is ammonia.

Ammonia is a colorless gas with a very sharp odor. The odor is familiar to most people because ammonia is used in smelling salts, household cleaners and window cleaning products.

Exposure to a high levels of ammonia can cause coughing and watering eyes. A high enough concentration can cause burns on the skin, eyes, throat or lungs and can lead to permanent blindness, lung disease or death, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The EPA toxic release reports for 1998 indicate that the Ergon facility on Haining Road produced 1.9 million pounds of the chemical while the IP facility on Mississippi Highway 3 produced 88,000.

Plant manager Ken Dillard said the company was already looking for ways to reduce its emissions before officials learned of the study.

He said the company had cut back its discharges in 1999 by about 700,000 pounds from 1998 and has been looking into processes to further shave those numbers. Ergon anticipates the final number in 2000 to be about 1 million pounds, Dillard said.

“We know it’s a toxin and to be honest, I don’t like having to fill out those reports to the EPA,” he said of continuing efforts to reduce emissions.

Dillard said that public exposure to ammonia is limited because the gas dissipates quickly in the air. Other factors such as wind and temperature affect the amount of exposure.

Because ammonia is not regulated by the EPA, the state does not include it in its permits, according to Don Watts, chief of compliance and enforcement with DEQ.

“We all know that ammonia has an odor and in enough of a concentrate can have an impact,” Watts said, “But for whatever reason, it is not regulated by the EPA.”

Although EPA does not regulate ammonia or the other 278 toxins tracked in the report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry does consider ammonia a “hazardous substance.”

Ray McLaurin, plant manager at the IP mill, said he had not seen the report before Thursday and could not verify the information used in the findings. He said the company is looking into the effects of its emissions.

“We are well under our permit limits and we are very conscious of our environmental stewardship,” McLaurin said.

The chemicals used in the findings are suspected in physical and mental deficits including structural birth defects, mental retardation, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and premature births, according to the report.

Currently there is no available data on the affects of ammonia in cancer or birth defects, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The study concludes that 25 percent of the problems may be the result of environmental and genetic factors working in combination, and that chemicals may play a significant role.

“We need to give the public health officials, health care providers and policy makers the tools to fight these disorders by tracking disabilities and related environmental exposures,” Viles said.

Other suspected neurotoxins included in the report that are released in Warren County include acetaldehyde, chlorine, chloromethane, manganese compounds, methanol, phenol and zinc compounds.

Based on recent estimates by the National Academy of Sciences, the report concludes that more than 360,000 U.S. children suffer from developmental or neurological disabilities caused by a range of toxic exposures including developmental and neurological toxins.