On Dec. 16, 2019, she called MDEQ about “a strong acid smell.” An inspector drove around town and noticed odors near VT Halter and outside of every facility along the aptly named Industrial Road. “It was a foggy day and the odors seemed to be held in place by the weather,” the inspector wrote. The file made no mention of using scientific instruments or any tools beyond the inspector’s own nose.
Weckesser complained to MDEQ at least 30 times last year alone, including five times in one week. After she reported a smell coming from Chevron, refinery officials pledged to install odor-eliminating technology so the next time they performed the offending process, which involved inserting nozzles on the side of a tank, it would “either smell like green apple or flowers.”
In an emailed response to detailed inquiries about the Concerned Citizens, Kruzich, the Chevron spokesperson, said the company’s employees “meet regularly with local residents to answer questions about refinery operations and safeguards. … We have also developed a rapid-response protocol and notification system for residents to report nuisance odors to the refinery, for refinery teams to quickly assess the complaint, and to then conduct real-time community air quality monitoring when our initial assessment supports it.” He declined to provide any details about the monitoring results.
The Concerned Citizens got their hopes up when VT Halter applied to renew its air permit last year. They thought they might be able to influence the MDEQ to include extra air monitoring requirements, or maybe even reject the application. “We are not environmental expert,” retail worker Duyen Tran and her husband Quy wrote to the agency. “We are not rich” enough “to do air (water or soil) test every day. … We have suffer health impact much more than enough for human’s physical strength. We need help to be out of this dilemma.”
The Trans had kept odor logs back in 2014, and Duyen was grateful that her job took her away from the subdivision’s contaminated air for most of the week. To make herself feel safer, she filled her home with plants recommended for improving indoor air quality, including foxtail ferns and peace lilies. She wants a buyout so her family can move somewhere safe.
Residents were devastated when they learned that MDEQ renewed VT Halter’s permit without additional requirements. The Concerned Citizens’ only remaining option is to sue, and the group doesn’t have the resources for that. Robert Wiygul, an attorney at the local law firm Waltzer Wiygul Garside, said his efforts to help them have stalled due to the costs of air monitoring and other technical work needed to bring a case to court — work that would essentially duplicate what regulators ought to be doing anyway, he said.
Weckesser summed up her frustrations in a November 2020 letter to MDEQ. “Depression has set in because DEQ doesn’t seem to get our message about what it is like to have to live here,” she wrote in looping cursive. She put it more bluntly in an interview with ProPublica: “I’ve felt weary and I’ve felt a struggle, and it’s like, Why in the world won’t you SOBs pay attention to us?”
This April, rumors swirled that the EPA’s mobile air monitoring van was in town taking samples. Carol Kemker, director of enforcement and compliance assurance at the EPA regional office that oversees Mississippi, said that the agency brought the van over from Denver as part of a focused effort to investigate emissions in the area. The monitor took samples at and near local polluters, including VT Halter and Chevron’s refinery. In late summer, the agency used more advanced tools to look for leaks and pinpoint sources of emissions, Kemker said. (This further investigation occurred after ProPublica began asking state and federal regulators about the toxic hot spot revealed in our analysis.)
Kemker called Pascagoula one of the “top areas” she is now focused on, selected because of the persistent complaints, the scope of industrial polluters in the area and the proximity of neighborhoods to these facilities. “We’ve heard the community. We’re really trying to do a very thorough investigation,” Kemker said, adding that MDEQ was “a very willing partner” to conduct joint investigations.
Enck said the EPA’s investigation is an encouraging sign. When the agency puts its resources into a community, “it can be a catalyst for change,” she said. “But the trick is getting them in there. … It shouldn’t be so hit-or-miss.”
EPA’s southeast regional office has 25 employees in the air enforcement branch responsible for eight states, Kemker said. “We have pulled resources from across the country to aid in this investigation, and my desire is for us to get the answers as quickly as possible.”
Results from the monitoring and leak detection are pending. But Weckesser may not stick around to see them. She owns a second home in Kentucky, where she once planned to spend half of each year, but which she has only visited intermittently because of her activism work in Pascagoula. Now she’s considering a permanent move. Her husband has kidney problems and a lung condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Weckesser worries there will be no one to take care of him if her health declines, too. “I want to get the hell out of here,” she said, adding that she wishes she could take her neighbors with her. “I don’t want to leave them behind.
“My worst fear is that half this subdivision or more is going to end up with a serious illness or die,” she said. “And no one is going to acknowledge or recognize that it was from industry.” Barbara Weckesser stands in her backyard in Pascagoula.
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