A new military development project could endanger the water quality of the Turkey Creek watershed near historically Black communities near in Gulfport, Miss., residents are warning.
Opponents of the proposal appeared at the Mississippi Court of Appeals in Jackson on Nov. 1 to challenge the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s 2019 approval of a permit for a planned Port of Gulfport military storage facility.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and Earthjustice representing the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization of Gulfport argued that while residents were aware of the new development, the MDEQ did not inform them about what could be stored at the defense facility and how that storage may affect water quality in the area.
“The permit board never told the neighborhood that explosive ammunition may be stored at this military project,” Earthjustice attorney Rodrigo Cantu argued to the court. “The law requires that they know this and that their voices be heard. The permit board has failed to comply with its legal obligations regarding this water-quality certification.”
But the three appeals court judges who heard the arguments expressed uncertainty about whether MDEQ officials had any indication that explosive materials, ammunition or other weapons of war would be stored at the facility at all.
“Is it anywhere in our record a final statement that explosives would be stored at this facility?” Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge David Neil McCarty asked Cantu. “All of this stuff about explosives seems very hypothetical.”
Cantu rebutted that “it was arbitrary and capricious” for the permit board to review a military project and not at least ask whether it would store anything that might affect the environment before approving a permit.
Activists argue that the Mississippi Environmental Quality Permit Board’s approval of the State Port Authority at Gulfport’s permit violates Section 401 of the U.S. Clean Water Act, which states that “a federal agency may not issue a permit or license to conduct any activity that may result in any discharge into waters of the United States unless a Section 401 water-quality certification is issued, or certification is waived.”
The proposed military project would be at the site of a former fertilizer plant that operated in the early 1900s. A scientific study found dangerously high levels of arsenic and lead in the soil in 2009. Concerned residents want answers regarding what will be stored at the proposed military facility and whether that cargo could leak and potentially disturb those toxins.
Lawyers for MDEQ’s permit board argued that when the public received notice of the impending development, the Port Authority had no requirement to disclose the specific materials that would be stored on-site.
“The position of the permit board is that the notice (to the public) was completely adequate in the sense that it conveyed, ‘This is going to be a martialing storage yard for equipment and cargo for military purposes for the Department of Defense,’” attorney Brant Pettis said. “Yes, that’s broad and can communicate a lot of things, but it also communicates a singular purpose of the Department of Defense. It is there to protect this country, by force if required.”
“We’re talking about a concrete, high-fence, security storage area,” he added. “One of the things that (the permit board) had to consider was the design of this project.”
Pettis told the court that the permit board considered how to “protect the water of the state of Mississippi” in their decision to approve the permit.
“The complaint from the petitioners in the very beginning was that this project was going to impact the watershed of Turkey Creek, but this project was designed to divert the run-off that currently goes to Turkey Creek to a different water basin. It would not go there. That was very important to their consideration,” Pettis said, claiming the plaintiff’s arguments were without merit.
‘What About Our Drinking Water?’
Residents from Gulfport’s Villa del Rey, North Gulfport, Emerald Pines, Forest Heights and Turkey Creek communities attended the hearing.
Villa del Rey resident Glenn Cobb said he sees a number of red flags in the proposed military project’s potential to further damage wetlands in the area, making flooding worse for nearby neighborhoods.
“Our neighborhood already floods now when there’s a hard rain,” Cobb told the Mississippi Free Press on Nov. 1. “Our streets, our churches flood. So what do you think is going to happen with this? Where is that water going to go? When you’re talking about disturbing a toxic area that was not properly cleaned up before, what about our drinking water?”
Cobb said he wondered why developers did not decide on a more remote area for the site.
“There’s other options that are closer to the airport. Why not use a different option rather than trying to build in a residential area?” he said. “They say this is going to bring jobs to the area, and they think that because they say that, we’re just going to go for it. This is not a win for us.” Cobb questioned what the benefits are of bringing in jobs if the worksite is on toxic land.
But during the Nov. 1 court hearing, Pettis said that, while the permit board did consider other sites to house the facility, the body found no other feasible sites to fit the Port Authority at Gulfport’s needs.
‘This Is Our Neighborhood’
Turkey Creek, a 13-mile freshwater creek used for fishing, swimming and canoeing, flows through the two historic communities of Turkey Creek and Forest Heights. In 1866, formerly enslaved Africans purchased and settled the 320 acres that came to be known as Turkey Creek.
Residents around Turkey Creek have pushed back against development proposals for decades, including challenging the Port Authority’s decision to place industrial poultry freezers on the old fertilizer plant site after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the port’s chicken export business.
In 2021, American Rivers, an environmental organization, named the Turkey Creek watershed as one of America’s most endangered waterways because of ongoing development near the area.
“Turkey Creek and its communities will suffer more pollution, flooding and injustice unless Mississippi state agencies step up to protect the creek and the area’s unique heritage,” Olivia Dorothy of American Rivers said in a press release on April 13, 2021.
Glenn Cobb said residents near Turkey Creek refuse to give up their fight: “This is our neighborhood,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. “Because of that, we care about what’s being built here, and we’re going to keep fighting.”
Watch the full Nov. 1, 2023, court hearing here.