Tire plant public hearing includes walk-out, information and feedback

Published 3:53 pm Wednesday, October 18, 2023

NATCHEZ — A public hearing on a proposal for development of the old Titan Tire plant began chaotically, but ended up being what many said was a helpful, informative meeting.

Members of the community surrounding the old tire plant, which has been vacant for 20 years, are concerned such development would stir up asbestos and perhaps other contaminants that may remain in the massive building and on the property. They say while operating, the plant spread contaminants that caused cancer in residents who lived near it.

The city owns the tire plant and the property on which it is located. Natchez Inc. began working with a group of investors in early 2020, who seek to purchase the property and develop it a little at a time for the production of nutraceuticals and adaptogens – food used for medicinal purposes, such as green tea, herbs and mushrooms.

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The pandemic put a halt to those negotiations, but the company is again interested in the site. Because negotiations are ongoing, the mayor would not name the company or those involved.

The issue was first discussed with community members at the Sept. 26 meeting of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen. Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson set the hearing at the request of Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Bridgewater-Irving. It was held Tuesday night in the fellowship hall at the Christian Hope Baptist Church at 301 LaSalle St., within walking distance of the old tire plant.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Cornelius Bradley, who lives near the plant at 104 S. Bluebird Drive, forcefully objected to the format of the meeting and objected that the mayor did not consult Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier and Bridgewater-Irving prior to scheduling the hearing. He also said it was not appropriate to hold the meeting at a church.

The mayor said he set the meeting at the church in an effort to make it convenient for residents who live near the plant.

“We came here to voice an opinion on something. We did not come here to hear DEQ, brownstone or nothing … What you are bringing is something none of us want to hear,” Bradley shouted. “This is wrong and you are wrong and any aldermen who agrees with you is wrong.”

Bradley then turned to the 60 or so residents at the meeting and said, “If anyone agrees with what I just said, go out this door.” About half of those gathered followed Bradley out of the room and into the parking lot, where he continued to lead a rally.

However, after about five minutes, a number of those who had left trickled back into the hearing and joined those who remained.

Trey Hess, a consultant with PPM, hired to oversee the city’s brownfield remediation grant, and Thomas Wallace of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, presented information about the current contamination at the facility.

They said an assessment made in 2017 showed shallow groundwater contamination in the area of what was a railroad spur on one small part of the property, which is not part of the portion being considered for purchase by the private company who seeks to develop it. Also, the building, like most of its age, is riddled with asbestos.

Asbestos contamination becomes a problem when it is disturbed, Hess said.

Bridgewater-Irving said the neighborhood surrounding the plant has become known as “cancer alley” and that no development of the plant should be considered.

Many at the meeting agreed with Bridgewater-Irving and called for the plant to be demolished.

The cost of demolishing the building was estimated several years ago to be $8 million, and is likely to cost more today with inflation, Gibson said. He said the city does not have the money to take the building down.

Hess said the level of contamination at the plant is not considered to be great enough to warrant grants or other funding from the state or federal government for demolition.

Joseph Smith said it seems three options are available for the site: one is do nothing; two is to demolish it; the third is to allow it to be sold and developed and remediated over time by the developer.

“Considering nothing else but what is best for the health of residents, which is the best option,” Smith asked MDEQ’s Wallace.

Wallace said doing nothing would likely be the worst option because if the roof collapses, as it likely would if the facility is allowed to continue to deteriorate, asbestos would be released in large quantity into the air.

He said if somehow funding were to be found to demolish the facility, while asbestos abatement would still have to take place, a greater chance of it getting into the air exists because of the size of the building.

Wallace said from a health standpoint, allowing a developer to come in and remove asbestos as needed under the guidance of environmental experts would be the safest for residents who live near the plant.

It was clear residents were skeptical of Wallace’s answers.

James Gavette, who said he lives on Rankin Street but grew up in a trailer park near the plant, loudly condemned plans to develop the property and said money should be found to tear it down.

“We need to get rid of that eyesore,” Gavette said. Later, he suggested setting up a GoFundMe to raise money for the demolition.

Toward the end of the meeting, Tony Johnson, who lives at 208 S. Bluebird Drive, read a letter he said was written by his girlfriend, Bobbie Hinson, who could not attend the meeting because she was out of town.

In her letter, Hinson urged her neighbors to be willing to listen to information presented.

“This plant is a total eyesore for the residents of Ward 2 and 4. Property values have decreased as a result of this dead plant … I am excited to learn that there is finally an industry that has an interest in breathing life into what has been a dead plant for many years,” she wrote. “My desire is that the residents are at least willing to listen to the information and ask challenging questions with the intent of gaining insight into the proposal instead of simply objecting to the potential progress.”

Deborah Cosey, who owns historic Concord Quarters located in the area of the plant, said she has not seen her neighbors this passionate about any other subject. She said she wished residents would be as passionate about other subjects the area is facing. “We have lots that needs to be taken care of,” she said.

Lastly, Cosey admonished Frazier and Gibson about their constant bickering, which she said was getting in the way of doing the work residents need them to do.

“I wish you two would stop it. I have to see it when I watch the city meetings and it is distracting. You are not showing leadership when you do that. You’ve got to stop it,” Cosey said.