Debris burning draws ire

Piles of donated old clothes are spreading like invasive weeds along roadsides in coastal Mississippi.

BY SUSAN KIM | BILOXI, Miss. | October 21, 2005

"You survive the hurricane only to be inundated with weeks of toxic smoke."

—Becky Gillette

Piles of donated old clothes are spreading like invasive weeds along the roadsides in coastal Mississippi. They're moldering amid the other debris - wood and metal shards, bent bikes, broken toys, ruined appliances, soaked furniture.

Now it's all starting to go up in flames. In Harrison County, permission has been given to burn debris piles, said Becky Gillette, an environmental activist who lives in Ocean Springs.

And that's leading to a second disaster. The debris isn't being carefully sorted, and the burning piles are spewing acrid smoke that's triggering asthma attacks and other respiratory problems among residents, said Gillette.

"It's not just tree limbs," she said, "it's plastic-treated wood. It's TVs and microwaves. It's bicycles. It's supposed to be just wood."

Recently an air inversion layer has been shrouding communities there in smoke that just doesn't move, said Gillette. "I have a friend who lost his home in east Biloxi," she explained. "He parked a travel trailer at another friend's house. He wired it wrong, and the air conditioner blew out. He works as a contractor. Well, at night, his throat hurts and his eyes water, and he's really having problems."

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour created a statewide Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. "The governor's commission has said that, in rebuilding, we should not create permanent problems," said Gillette. "We do have a temporary problem with the debris - and there are huge quantities of debris. But if you burn the debris and cause cancer and respiratory disorders, you're creating a permanent problem. You survive the hurricane only to be inundated with weeks of toxic smoke."

Politicians have rushed to make debris disappear quickly because, Gillette said, "there is this emotional component. I have heard local leaders say: 'we've just got to get that stuff off the street.' Well, maybe there is an emotional advantage to removing it but right now that shouldn't be as important as physical well-being."

There are other options, said Gillette. In Jackson County, wood debris is being taken to staging areas, where it's chipped then given to mills in northern Mississippi to fuel boilers. "We think Harrison County should do what we're doing."

Wood debris can also be lodged in the sand to protect wetlands and barrier islands, Gillette pointed out. "Then those wetlands and barrier islands can slow down the path of future storms."

Looking at the big picture, burning massive quantities of debris contributes to global warming, she added, "and that's making these super-storms worse."

Gillette and others also worry that environmental testing has been too little and too late. "There is this huge gap," she said. "The Environmental Protection Agency waited a month before they went beyond initial tests of water in the bay and of fish tissue. Meanwhile, how many people are already back in their homes? Why aren't we doing some sort of testing right now in homes and schools - especially if they're located near a chemical plant? The impact may show up in 20 years. It may not be an immediate impact."

Lax environmental regulations before a disaster can magnify damage many times over after a disaster strikes, added Gillette. "In Bay St. Louis, there's a large chemical plant that produces 15 million pounds of toxic waste each year. Some of the waste is temporarily kept in large open waste pools. When we inquired about what happened to the open waste during the storm, the chemical plant claimed no environmental impact occurred. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality said: 'these industries are supposed to notify us,' - and said since they hadn't been notified, there was no environmental impact."

"I regard this as a total failure of regulatory systems," said Gillette. "There was no independent testing. There was no independent monitoring in Bay St. Louis. They just don't want to know. I think a regulatory agency's role is to protect the public. But, here, it's to protect industry from citizen complaints."

Communication with residents regarding environmental hazards has not been consistent or clear, said Gillette - but she also acknowledged public confusion in general has been very high amid the post-hurricane chaos.

"I had a friend who got to the point that, whenever she saw a line, she'd get in it to see what people were getting. One time she waited in line and found out it was a lunch only for Cingular workers. It became this sort of Russian-like scarcity mentality."

Gillette also said she wasn't truly prepared for disaster herself. "I had a foot of water in my home. The surge came up fast but it left fast, too. It flowed out of the house like a river, dragging stuff with it."

She did not evacuate - but next time she will. "I got to the point where it was too late. I couldn't go north. It was in gridlock. I didn't have an alternative evacuation plan. I would never stay again. But you need to leave before the traffic gets horrible. When the water started coming up, I couldn't believe it, up and up, under the door. I thought, 'I have to change my belief system about this.' "

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