FOX13 Investigates: South Memphis residents say old defense depot is making them sick

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Since the late 1950s, three generations of Alcy Ball families have lived on Compton Avenue. They’ll tell you it was once home to Black middle-class families who built their homes from the ground up.

“When I was a kid, it was a great neighborhood. Just like now, most of us knew everybody so it was a family-oriented neighborhood,” said Jasmine Scales, who lives in her childhood home on Compton Avenue with her daughter.

Now, the population is falling while poverty is rising.

Those who could afford to get out, did.

The neighborhood’s population has gone down by about 16% and only half the people who do live there are homeowners.

“This has been home for 63 years for my family,” said Frank Johnson, who now owns his family home.

For those who did stay, it didn’t take long for them to see their loved ones getting sick.

And not just the flu or a cold — life-altering, sometimes terminal, sicknesses.

Johnson said it started with his grandmother, who died from cancer in 1973.

Then, his mother.

“What we found out was she had a rare brain cancer that seemed to come out of nowhere. Up until that point, there was no history of brain cancer in our family,” he said.

Then, his older sister. “14 years after that, my older sister was diagnosed with the exact same brain cancer in the exact same brain cancer in the exact same part of the brain.”

Johnson said his older sister, Karen, was diagnosed in 2014 at the age of 48.

He said at the time, she was actively running miles and eating healthy, yet it still wasn’t enough.

“It clicked with me when my sister was diagnosed because I just knew at that point that it wasn’t just cancer running in the family. What I started to do was, I just started walking up and down my street here and started talking to my neighbors again.”

One of those neighbors was 84-year-old Mittie Sue Cowan Hanson.

She’s lived in her home for 63 years and has since had six kids and dozens of grandkids and great-grandkids.

“Every house on this street, someone has been sick with something,” she said.

She’s also beat cancer three times.

“It first started in 1979; I had breast cancer. In 2011, I had lymphonic cancer and 2013 I had colon cancer,” said Hanson.

Hanson said she was able to fight through it with the strength of God on her side.

She said some of her neighbors weren’t as fortunate.

“After I retired and found out a lot of them had died from different cancers – brain cancer, this lady had cancer, she passed away, Miss Porter, nearly everyone over here has had some type of disease,” said Hanson.

But it’s not just cancers. Women have experienced reproductive issues.

“I had uterine fibroids, which led me to have a hysterectomy,” said Scales.

“My mom and my sister both suffered miscarriages. What we later found out was, they stored a toxin at the depot called dieldrin and I think it was retired pesticide and it causes spontaneous miscarriages in women,” said Johnson.

The depot he’s referring to is the Defense Depot.

It’s now considered a decommissioned U.S. Army depot, but it was active up until the late 1990s.

Compton Avenue is less than a half-mile from the site.

“It was supposed to be a storage and distribution center for normal things, like hats, gloves and things that soldiers need, but in actuality, it was a landfill full of harmful chemicals that hurt people, plants and pets,” said Marquita Bradshaw, founder of environmental justice group Sowing Justice.

Bradshaw said growing up, she saw teenage neighbors diagnosed with reproductive cancers.

It prompted her to join the fight against environmental racism with her mother, Doris Bradshaw.

“When we met with government officials and health dept officials 27 years ago, they were blaming the victims, they were saying that it was because the women in the community was so promiscuous that there were so many reproductive cancers,” she said.

The EPA said it was in 1989 when local utility companies were forced to close three drinking wells due to contamination.

“It didn’t start with the people when I was growing up. It was our dogs first,” she said.

The government officially acknowledged the problem in 1992.

The EPA added the Defense Depot to its national priority list of contaminated superfund sites that need to be cleaned up immediately.

An Army database shows records that a year later, in 1993, a concerned citizen wrote a letter requesting a cancer study done on the neighborhoods surrounding the depot.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry soon got involved, completing a public health report in 2000.

Doctor Rueben Warren was one of the people who relayed these results to the community back when it was completed: “The science is one thing. The ethics is another and the justice is another.”

In the report, the conclusion is that “no known exposures exist or have existed since at least 1989 that could result in health effects.”

A separate report done by the same agency focused on cancer incidences from 1990-96 shows there were 665 new cases of cancer surrounding the depot.

It then goes on to say that this is not an increased rate compared to the rest of Shelby County or the state.

Since then, there have been no new cancer studies done in the area surrounding the depot.

In conclusion, the report says they cannot link cancer to the toxins from the defense depot, but the agency also acknowledges that they cannot account for other health risks.

“Look at what they stored and the relationship between what they stored and the health risks are undisputable. Arsenic – undisputable,” said Dr. Warren.

More than two decades later, Warren said that the citizens had every right to be upset and critical of the agency.

He said there should have been scientists who went door to door to speak to people — the ones who were sick.

“It should’ve happened. That’s an injustice. At the end of the day, you gotta talk to the people. The science says what you expect but talking with folks will tell you what’s actually going on. You should not have to count the bodies to respond accordingly,” he said.

Warren, who is now retired, said another cancer study is long overdue and the people who have suffered themselves, who also watched their families suffer, have to be the ones to push for it.

“If you still have people dying, if you’re still having toxic waste, if you’re still having the same problems that were at the depot, then why should you stop until you’ve resolved it? You can’t stop until you have the answer.”

Until then, Hanson and the neighbors on Compton Avenue said they will keep speaking up.

" I want people in Memphis to know that it’s not you. It’s not this trope of Black people doing the wrong things and that’s what’s causing this,” said Johnson.

Hanson said, “I’m a fighter baby. I believe in the good Lord.”

The EPA cleanup of the Defense Depot is considered complete. However, there continues to be testing conducted on groundwater for chemical residue.

FOX13 asked the Shelby County Health Department about any plans for a possible followup cancer study and did not get a response.

FOX13 will continue to ask that question.