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Sounding an alarm about the health of the Mississippi River

The assertion was sobering: Eroding topsoil flowing from farmlands in the North contaminates the Mississippi River with deadly pesticides, fertilizers and other harmful chemicals.

Mayors, legislators and conservation advocates convened in Memphis last week to tackle environmental concerns about the “Mighty Mississippi.” The 2019 Annual Mississippi River Legislative Caucus positioned legislators alongside a second assembly of officials attending the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiatives (MRCTI).

Both agendas conveyed alarm for the deteriorating health of Mississippi River water. There even was concern expressed that the Memphis-area’s prized Artesian Wells could be in danger.

“People still fish in that river,” said State Rep. G.A. Hardaway (District 83). “They catch catfish and actually eat them. Catfish are bottom feeders. The river is contaminated and that is endangering our population.

“The most affected are the poor. Where does flooding begin? In communities of color, where drainage backs up and contaminated water rises.”

MRCTI, an association of mayors, had among is headliners former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, now executive director of the Andrew Young Foundation, which promotes human rights around the globe. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon welcomed delegates to the Mid-South.

“Changing the world happens one step at a time, through acts of leadership and courage,” said Young, offering encouragement for “what might seem to others and impossible task. …

“It is the work of generations, with progress made possible by those who pass on the lessons learned from both successes and setbacks, and most importantly the necessary knowledge that change is indeed possible.”

The MRLC was organized to assist legislators who represent river districts and are committed to reviving a thriving, healthy Mississippi River. Lawmakers exchanged ideas, heard scientific research findings and collaborated on the best strategies forward. This year’s caucus interfaced with river-city mayors, members of Congress, advocacy groups, and the business community at the related convening of mayors at the MRCTI. Both were sponsored by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

Joint sessions highlighted the unity of purpose for both conferences. Several legislators and conservationists later shared some takeaways from this year’s confabs.

“This is not a black or white problem. It isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem. We all breathe the air, we all drink the water. And the air don’t care, the water don’t care what color you are or what political party you’re affiliated with,” Hardaway said.

“Communities of color must be educated and awareness must be raised regarding the negative effects of flooding so they can stay on top of their legislators to take action.”

“G.A. is right,” said Towns (District 84). “We’ve got to be concerned about the quality of our water. … Look at what happened up in Flint, Mich. … The government got it wrong, and the people of Flint were not protected. Our young people, millennials, and elected officials have got to get it right”

Legislators from various states agreed that communities of color tend to be disproportionately effected by environmental crises, such as flooding.

“One in every three persons in my district is a person of color,” said Iowa State Rep. Cindy Winckler. “There is not a day that goes by that I’m not thinking about them. They have always been greatly affected by river flooding. Iowa is a rural state, and we began addressing the flooding issue through mitigation and adaptation.

“The communities close to the river get overrun with water. What we did was stop building affordable housing close to the river,” she said. “So, when there is flooding, those residents are not devastated like they have been in the past.”

Hardaway said environmental issues could not be discussed without talking about environmental justice.

“It’s a matter of classism, not racism,” he said. “The least affluent have the least influence. You’ve got a bunch of greedy, corporate people. This present administration (the Trump administration) is trying to take away California’s ability to regulate its own air. It doesn’t matter how many people lose their life.”

Towns saw education as a key component in raising awareness in Memphis and Shelby County.

“There are contaminated creeks flowing all through this city,” he said. “And our children play in them every day. Cypress Creek backs up right there behind Springdale School. Children play in that contaminated dirt dumped there when the creek overflows. There are day cares in these areas where our babies play.”

Although the land and quality of water has diminished around the Mississippi River, Hardaway said, “It’s not too late, but there will be a tipping point. …

“Just a couple of decades ago, the Memphis Defense Depot was closed because many residents who lived around it were sick and dying from dangerous carcinogens that caused high cancer fatalities, many from the same families. Materials being dumped there were toxic and citizens organized around that. We’ve got to have that same level of concern,” he said.

“It is more critical today than it ever was. All of us – elected officials – have an obligation to be responsible and more accountable when it comes to conservation. That is the message we are taking back.”

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