- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) - She wouldn’t let her little girls play outside her home, and definitely not in the creek behind her Texarkana subdivision. Mary Frances Shears’ maternal instincts to protect her children at any cost were put to the test each day her babies weren’t allowed to make mud pies or explore the woods near their home.

“Because I had seen that stuff, seen it in the grass and stuff, I did not let them play outside. I would not let them play outside,” Shears said, shaking her head. “And I said, ‘You cannot play in that water.’”

Her family lived in one of the most toxic neighborhoods in the county, and one of two toxic sites in Texarkana. Carver Terrace was built in 1964 on the site of an old creosote plant that closed in 1961, leaving carcinogens and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil.

Due to segregation at the time, it was also one of only two subdivisions where professional black families could build homes and raise their children.

For years, residents knew something was not right. Young people were getting sick with kidney and thyroid issues. Miscarriages. Cancers. In each and every home, someone was ill.

Through grassroots efforts headed by outspoken and driven Carver Terrace resident Patsy Oliver and Texarkana’s Friends United for a Safe Environment, then-Sen. Jim Chapman became aware of the situation.

“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was just beginning to get their legs under them about the time that I came to Washington as a congressman,” Chapman said. “Carver Terrace was something that was on my radar scope, and ultimately I finally toured the site and read all the reports and just became convinced that no amount of remediation would be enough.”

On December 11, 1980, Superfund was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter to provide funding to clean up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites. Carver Terrace residents knew they needed to be on this list, and residents, led by Patsy Oliver and FUSE, fought the Environmental Protection Agency for years to get there.

Studies were done, meetings were held. Protest marches made the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce nervous, and Patsy Oliver coined the term “environmental racism” and called the town “Toxicana.”

The Texarkana Gazette (https://bit.ly/1lNj7gm ) reports that FUSE President Dr. James Presley and former President Don Preston attended a meeting in the Shears’ home, trying to figure out a solution.

“What we had in mind you need to get people out of here,” Presley said. “We asked the group there, ‘What do you want?’ and I think everyone there wanted to get bought out and relocated. Which is what we thought.”

The group finally drew attention from the EPA, and they came to Carver Terrace in full bio-hazard gear, or “moon suits” as Oliver’s daughter, Bess Gamble-Williams said.

“My mother said, ‘Y’all keep saying it’s not dangerous to live here. Why are you in that suit?’” Williams said.

Later, when the EPA’s official report was made, it downplayed the pollution, angering residents.

“You can’t argue with something that has a hundred different scientists on their payroll. You can’t argue science with them,” Preston said. “You could see that people were suffering with PAH’s out there. It was obvious. The first thing you saw out there.”

Chapman fought the EPA every way he could, he said, to get some type of relief for Carver Terrace residents. Their initial proposal to remove and “wash” the first few inches of dirt and return it to the neighborhood didn’t gel to him, he said, as he talked to a lot of “very smart” people who said it just wouldn’t work. He kept fighting for justice he said, and the EPA wasn’t doing anything.

“While they weren’t watching, I got a position on the Senate Appropriations Committee,” he said. He earmarked a bill, changing the lives of 75 families forever. “Carver Terrace was one I required the EPA use with Superfund to buy out and be relocated.”

That bill was signed into law in 1991.

Demolition of Carver Terrace, also known as Superfund site No. 677, was completed in 1994.

Texarkana Wood Preserving Co. was also a Superfund site, with then-Attorney General of Arkansas Winston Bryant halting the EPA’s plan to incinerate soil from the former creosote plant, saying it would damage the health of Arkansas residents just a few miles away. The EPA withdrew their plans in 1998, agreeing that the site instead be capped. No re-use determination has been made on that site.

While Chapman was doing his work in Washington, lawyers for Koppers Co., the company who sold the contaminated land to a developer in 1964, were going door-to-door in the neighborhood.

“They had a lawsuit, and the Koppers people sent out a group of lawyers that knocked on doors and offered people money not to sue them, and a lot of people took the money. My mother said, ‘My yard is worth more than that, and you’re talking about my house? How dare you?’” Williams said. “I guess at that time, just economically, a lot of people were having bill problems so $5,000 at that time, it’s like I’ll take what I can and go.”

The families who took the $5,000 from Koppers were not included in the Superfund buyout. Oliver couldn’t get to them in time to keep them from signing on the dotted line, Williams said.

“She felt sorry for them. She said ‘Now you’ve sold your soul for nothing.’ If this had been a white neighborhood, they wouldn’t have offered them anything pitiful like that, Williams said. She said, “Your yard is worth more than that. Why would you even take that kind of money from anybody?’” Williams recalled. “I believe that they were also conspiring to tell them that either they take the $5,000, or they don’t get nothing. And they were afraid, most of the residents were afraid, that they were just going to be stuck on that toxic land, and nobody was going to help this black neighborhood, nobody was going to do anything, so we might as well get what we can while we can. That was the attitude.”

When the Corps of Engineers implemented the buyout in 1992, Shears was not happy with the amount she was given for her years in Carver Terrace.

“To be done like we were done in Carver Terrace, it just really hurt I should have gotten more than $50,000 for my house,” Shears said.

Williams added, “My mother said the same thing. Not just for the land, but for the house. The federal government owes us. All of the children still living right now, they still owe us. Rashes and stinging. My sweat shouldn’t be stinging my skin when I sweat,” she said of her health issues caused by being raised on toxic soil.

Superfund, created in 1980 with $1.6 billion to pay for the cleanup of any site where a polluter could not be identified, was bankrupt or refused to take action. These funds came through “polluter pays fees,” which came from companies identified as responsible for hazardous chemical releases. That amount was nearly $4 billion in 1995, when the authorization to collect these fees ended and was not reauthorized by Congress under George W. Bush’s administration. That amount has continued to decrease to less than $1.1 billion in 2013, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report. A total of 1,400 Superfund sites have been cleaned, with more than 47,000 potentially toxic sites identified.

In Texarkana, Koppers was bought out by Beazer, who is funding the Carver Terrace site’s cleanup.

FUSE has joined with other environmental groups across the nation to encourage legislators to restore the requirement that polluters pay for Superfund site cleanups. Coordinating with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, they commemorated Superfund’s anniversary by participating in a campaign to reinvigorate it. In a letter to Sen. John Ratcliffe, the group pushed for action: “We urge you to support reinstatement of polluters pay fees to help correct this struggling Superfund program. It would be a major step toward health, relieving taxpayer burden and a more equitable resolution of the crisis.”

Chapman said he’s doubtful the Republican-controlled Senate will respond positively, as EPA programs are the first to be cut.

“I don’t know a single Republican that doesn’t declare war on the EPA,” he said. “It is part of the conservative’s bible that the EPA is evil. It’s the political reality of the times. As long as you have that mentality of the Congress, it will not be reauthorized.”

To make this happen, he said, “I don’t know what it takes. It’s hard if you don’t have a Superfund site in your backyard. It’s just not on your radar scope.”

For the ones he helped clean up in his backyard, he said he enjoyed going head to head with the EPA.

“It was fun to do. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge,” Chapman said. “It’s always fun when it’s the right thing to do.”


Information from: Texarkana Gazette, https://www.texarkanagazette.com

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