Early and Meaningful Community Engagement: “Bridging the Gap” at Kerr-McGee Chemical (Columbus, MS)
When Mathy Stanislaus, the assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, joined the agency in June of 2009, his message of “early and meaningful” community engagement spread quickly.
“Here in the Region 4 Superfund Division, we took a hard look at our efforts and were pleased to discover that at the majority of our sites, we were already answering the call,” said Freda Lockhart, chief of the region’s Office of Superfund Public Affairs and Outreach.
The Kerr-McGee Chemical (Columbus) site in Mississippi, previously regulated under the state and federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) programs, could not be managed under RCRA authority following the potentially responsible party’s bankruptcy filing. As a result, the responsibility of the site transitioned to the Superfund Division, which immediately drafted a community engagement plan of action. The plan was written as a strategy to foster relationship building among locally elected officials, state and federal regulatory agencies, community leaders and concerned citizens of the environmental justice community.
As a first step, in September 2010, Community Involvement Coordinator Tonya Whitsett phoned residents who had received data results from testing conducted by the RCRA Division and provided them with a point of contact for relaying concerns or questions. On-Scene Coordinator Steve Spurlin, Remedial Project Manager Charles L. King and Whitsett further implemented the plan of action by meeting with the mayor, councilpersons, and several members of a newly formed environmental justice organization in the state to begin bridge-building. EPA issued a press release that resulted in a front-page, local newspaper article. The news story provided readers with information about Superfund’s Removal and Remedial processes, which EPA also planned to present to stakeholders at an upcoming public meeting. On October 14th, Region 4 Superfund Division Director Franklin Hill and several members of the division met with the mayor, councilmen, community advocates and a select group of concerned citizens in a positive information exchange at city hall. Over 160 members of the community attended the Introduction to Superfund public meeting held later that evening. Hill presided over the meeting, and as a follow-up, sent “An Open Letter to the Mayor and Concerned Citizens of Columbus” thanking local officials, community advocates and residents for their attendance and involvement.
Site team representatives have met with success in forging relationships in the community, and the community members have favorably demonstrated their commitment. Following a Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) and Community Advisory Group (CAG) presentation meeting held in November, a community CAG was formed. At the CAG’s monthly information exchanges, the city’s mayor, councilpersons for the districts, state and federal representatives, community leaders and concerned citizens are present and actively engaged. Members of the CAG and meeting attendees have hosted several EPA presentations that have included the role of the site’s bankruptcy trustee, the provision of an independent contractor to interpret removal action data and two new initiatives of the Superfund Division.
In August of 2011, EPA presented the first initiative which served as an introduction to the final four contractors competing for the Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study. The objectives and goals were to provide the following opportunities:
- Enable the CAG to learn about the capabilities and approaches of the final teams;
- Provide the teams with the ability to understand the community’s values, priorities and expectations for involvement throughout the Superfund process, and
- Educate the teams about the capabilities of local contractors and the labor pool in the area.
The second initiative, presented in September of 2011, was a respectful request for consideration of a proposal to introduce a student leadership development component to the CAG’s membership. The proposal’s favorable adoption by the CAG was due to the support requested by EPA, which the city’s mayor enthusiastically granted by offering students from the city’s youth advisory council as a resource.
The site’s community involvement coordinator and the CAG chairperson shared the success of engagement between the agency and the community at the Mississippi Department of Health Conference held in May 2011. The site-specific method of relationship fostering was defined and shared as the B-R-I-D-G-E concept to attendees of the “Empowering Your Community: Getting Stronger Together” track. The presentation tells the story of how site team representatives have been given an opportunity to earn trust and bridge gaps between the agency, locally elected officials, the community’s leaders and concerned citizens.
B-Begin to Build
R-Relay the Relevant
I-Identify the Investors
D-Demand and Deliver
G-Guide and be Guided
E-Engage and Empower
“We realize the role early and meaningful engagement plays in our work with communities. Kerr-McGee (Columbus) is but one example of successful efforts in the division,” states Hill.
EPA placed the Kerr-McGee Chemical (Columbus) Superfund Site on the final NPL in September of 2011. The site is comprised of approximately 90 acres, and is located at 2300 North 14th Avenue in Columbus, Mississippi. The facility was operational from approximately 1928 to 2003. While operational, Kerr-McGee manufactured pressure-treated railroad products such as wooden cross ties, switch ties, and timbers. The production processes at the site used creosote and creosote coal tar solutions to produce pressure-treated wood products. The facility also used pentachlorophenol (PCP) for wood-treating from the 1950s until the mid-1970s.View a summary of the agreement (PDF) (2 pp, 400K)