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Fumes sicken workers, halt construction

Vicksburg Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Gettinger, from left, Vicksburg Sewer Department Superintendent Tommy Gardner and James Shirley with the DEQ Office of Pollution Control walk through a construction area in front of Jubilee Exxon where an odor was detected.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[9/19/01]Work to widen the Clay and Mission 66 intersection was shut down Tuesday after strange fumes made workers ill.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality was called in after four employees of Hemphill Construction said they became dizzy and nauseous from the smell coming from a shallow hole near the Jubilee Exxon, 1215 Mission 66.

James Shirley of the DEQ Office of Pollution Control said the site will be shut down for at least a week for testing.

“We have an unknown substance giving off a smell,” Shirley said.

The project, designed to eliminate a decades-old hazard by increasing all turn lanes to regulation width, was due to be completed in December. There was no word on whether that will still be feasible.

The owner of the Exxon station also closed that store Tuesday morning after DEQ officials said the wind was carrying the odor underneath the canopy above the gas pumps, Shirley said.

Vicksburg Fire Chief Kevin Westbrook, who serves as the hazardous materials officer for the city, said an ambulance responded to the construction site Monday evening after four workers reported the “strange odor.” Westbrook said the workers recovered and did not go to a hospital.

The DEQ was called in after city officials ruled out the possibility of a broken gas or sewer line. By 2 p.m., environmental workers wearing chemical protective suits and gas masks were on site to investigate the cause.

“It does not smell like natural gas and it does not smell like sewer, but we’re not ruling anything out,” Shirley said.

Construction workers told DEQ officials that the odor smelled like a pesticide or herbicide. Shirley said DEQ officials will take soil samples for testing in Jackson, but results will take at least five days. Until those results are known, the work at the intersection will be on hold, Shirley said.

The DEQ will also be monitoring the air in the area and will fill in the hole with dirt from another location.

There is, however, no larger threat. “We really don’t look at a health concern in this area,” Shirley said.

Along with the gas station, there is a McDonald’s restaurant and a Rite Aid Pharmacy at the intersection. The fourth corner is a vacant bank branch building.

The intersection is also about 1/2 mile from ParkView Regional Medical Center and a residential neighborhood to the north, about a mile from Vicksburg Junior High School and Warren Central Junior High School to the south and three blocks from St. Francis Xavier Elementary and St. Aloysius High schools.

Police Lt. David Beard, at the site in case traffic had to be diverted from the area during the cleanup, said there had been no other complaints from people in the area about the smell.

Work to widen the intersection began in February when utility companies began moving lines and polls, but has been delayed twice since. The first delay came after the original contractor withdrew, citing internal financial problems and later because of delays with some of the utility work.

The $486,789 contract was awarded in March to Hemphill, based in Florence.

According to a traffic count by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, about 15,000 cars travel through the intersection along Clay Street each day.

The project was announced seven years ago but had been on hold while city leaders negotiated easements along the two roads. Last year, the city had to use its power of eminent domain to get some of the small parcels needed for the widening.