Putting Potter In The Past

Published 6:27 pm Friday, August 6, 2010

WESSON – It was a blessing for decades, providing steady work ina small town where jobs were few.

But it ended in disaster, with widespread environmental damageand claims of sickness, even death.

Now, the former Potter Company building in Wesson has beenreduced to a heap of bricks and twisted metal, torn down bynationwide environmental cleanup agency First Environment. Thelongtime participant in the small town’s proud industrial historywill soon be wiped clean from the landscape, and the oncecontaminated acreage where it sat will be replanted in pine trees,said First Environment project manager John Miksa.

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“It’s a total cleanup plan. The building was at the point whereit wasn’t worth refurbishing, so they decided to clear everythingoff and make it a green field,” he said.

Miksa said the 10-acre site would be graded and greened in aboutsix months. When the job is complete, a 58-year history ofblessings and curses will be gone.

The Potter Company came to Wesson from Brookhaven in 1952 andbegan operating in 1953, manufacturing electronic noise filtersthat would be used on airplanes and in computers.

It was one of the town’s largest employers at the time, and atits height would provide around 400 jobs for people from all overSouthwest Mississippi. The jobs – soldering, wiring and assembly,all done by hand – were minimum wage.

Ron Hartgraves, who worked as Potter’s quality manager for 33years from 1959 to 1992, said most of the facility’s employees werewomen.

“They’re better at the dexterity part of making those smalllittle CANS (electronic enclosures),” he said. “A lot of the stuffwas real small. Some of it was one-by-one, two-by-two, and womencould do a better job than men could.”

In the attentive hands of its female workforce, Potter Companyaveraged annual sales of $8 million.

In 1986, Varian Associates Inc. acquired Potter through itspurchase of Pulse Engineering Inc. At the time of the transaction,some employees voiced their concerns over how the plant’s wastematerials had been disposed of. The company investigated, and thoseconcerns were validated.

“When they first started doing this, they didn’t realize it wasbad,” Hartgraves said. “When it got contaminated, they dumped itout back, in a creek or a pond.”

According to a report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substancesand Disease Registry, soil testing at the plant and surroundingproperties in the spring of 1986 found evidence of polychlorinatedbiphenyls (PCBs), toxic organic compounds used in electronicsmanufacturing. PCB oils were used at Potter from 1959-1968.

As soon as the contamination was found, the State of Mississippiordered Potter to determine its extent and develop plans forcleanup. Seven years later, in the spring of 1993, the company hadremoved more than 6,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil fromonsite and surrounding properties. The ATSDR found the cleanupproject to be sufficient.

But the real scare for the approximately 1,500 residents ofWesson wasn’t in the soil. It was in the water.

In 1987, the Mississippi Department of Health tested a pair ofWesson’s municipal water wells located about 1,000 feet from Potterand found significant trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination. Thecompany had used TCEs from 1954-1975 to degrease and clean PCBsfrom its components.

A boil water alert was issued and students at Copiah-LincolnCommunity College were provided bottled water. The town’s watertreatment facility was upgraded to remove TCEs, but the newcomponent failed to bring the contamination level below standardsset by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Wesson shut down the old wells and drilled two new wells,connecting them to the water system in 1989.

The contamination was removed by the early 1990s, but horrorstories of sickness and cancer tied to Potter’s contaminationcontinued. Several students at Wesson Attendance Center werediagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s, but no connection withPotter was ever made.

Brandy Sanders died of bone cancer at age 15 on April 8, 1998. Abrain tumor claimed 25-year-old Jason Counts on Sept. 11, 2001.Every year, Wesson dance instructor Nena Smith gives out a $1,200scholarship in Sanders’ memory and names one of her students therecipient of the Jason Counts Award.

“I’ve lost several of my kids to cancer over the years,” Smithsaid. “It’s kind of hard. A lot of people in this town believe wehave an unusually large amount of cancer for a town this size. I’mnot so sure I agree with that, but it seems like every week I hearof someone else.”

Smith said she doesn’t believe the Potter contamination causedthe cancer in either Sanders or Counts – both lived out in CopiahCounty, she said. Neither of them drank Wesson city water athome.

“But they did when they were at school,” she said.

Hartgraves said two Potter managers died of cancer while workingfor Potter in the 1980s.

“They had worked in the flat earlier until they moved themselvesup,” he said.

The ATSDR in follow-up studies in 1995 was unable to determineif the Potter contamination had elevated cancer rates in Wessonbecause there was no city-specific cancer mortality rate data. Itdid find, however, the cancer mortality rates countywide were notgreater than the state average.

In 1998, Potter was bought out by Spectrum Control Inc., whichcontinues to operate just up the road. Spectrum Manager HenryBallard, who started off working for Potter in 1980, said the lastequipment was moved out of Potter and into the Spectrum building inMarch 1999.

“They gave me approximately six months to get out of thefacility down there,” he said.

The old Potter facility has stood vacant for 11 years. Now, itstands no more.

“I hate to see it go, but knowing the circumstances it’s a moveforward,” said Ward Four Alderman and local historian Bobby Britt.”Hopefully the property will be cleaned up sufficiently so that wecan maybe get another industry in there some day. But a landmarkwill be gone. That’s what happens when time moves on.”