Alcoa Corporation polluted the Stanly County town of West Badin with toxic chemicals for decades. Now, the people living there want action.
3,500 words, 17-minute read
M acy Hinson was raised in a small house that rested at the foot of a short hill at 415 Lee Street, 100 yards from an unlined pit where aluminum titan Alcoa disgorged its hazardous waste.
“I played in the trash dump,” Hinson recently told state environmental officials. “I picked iron and sold it for five cents a bucket. I thought I was rich.”
But the only entity getting rich was Alcoa. For nearly a century, Alcoa operated an aluminum smelting plant on the brim of West Badin, a historically Black neighborhood built by the company shortly after it arrived. For much of Alcoa’s tenure, there were no regulations governing hazardous waste, so the company strew hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic debris wherever it was convenient, some of it in West Badin.
Now, after 30 years Alcoa’s toxic legacy has reached a turning point. The company is expected to submit a final remediation plan to the NC Department of Environmental Quality by the end of the year. This proposal reportedly will detail how the company will clean up several locations where hazardous waste is still festering in the soil and leaching into the groundwater.
These places are called by the benign name “Solid Waste Management Units.” But they’re actually unlined dumps or piles, their malignancies hidden beneath a lush copse of pine trees, a gentle rolling field, and a hillside overlooking Badin Lake. Two smaller outcroppings, “Areas of Concern,” include a former baseball field and Little Mountain Creek.
West Badin residents and environmental advocates are concerned that Alcoa will do only the minimum, and that DEQ won’t push the company to do more. So far, the cleanup has consisted of piecemeal and often ineffective remedies, protracted by deadline extensions. By comparison, a smaller Alcoa site in Vancouver, Washington — it contained 66,000 tons of contamination — was remediated under the federal Superfund program. That eight-year cleanup is complete.
There are also an untold number of other disposal sites, residents say, where Alcoa buried waste and covered it. Yet DEQ has not required these to be part of Alcoa’s cleanup plan. If DEQ fails to direct Alcoa to fully remove the contaminated soil, treat the groundwater, and conduct additional investigations of other potential disposal sites, “that is a flat-out insult to the community,” said Ryke Longest, director of the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “Is DEQ going to use enforcement powers or will it go along for the ride?”
West Badin residents have long demanded a full excavation of the hazardous waste. With one road in and another narrow street out, the neighborhood is subsumed by Alcoa property. Merely walking out their front door reminds them of previous and ongoing environmental injustices. Many are Black workers who held the most dangerous jobs. Some died young, of cancer, shortly after retiring. Some survivors, like Hinson, carry remnants of the waste inside them, their lungs scarred by asbestos. “It’s not hidden racism,” Hinson told a group of environmental justice advocates. “It’s overt racism.”
E ngulfing 130 acres, the old Alcoa plant is a monolith of grim, gray windowless buildings that shadow a railroad and NC 740 and run nearly the length of town. Alcoa still owns the complex under a shell company; rechristened as Badin Business Park, it is tall enough to obliterate the sunrise for the residents of Lee Street.
Alcoa arrived in Badin in 1917, where until 2007 it operated an aluminum smelting plant. Smelting is a hot, dangerous process. It entails extracting the metal from its oxide, alumina, in enormous lined pots at temperatures reaching 1,800 degrees. The resulting aluminum is used to make our modern necessities and conveniences: beer cans and tea kettles, saucepans and car doors.
But our amenities come at a price. The smelting process created massive amounts of at least 24 hazardous chemicals, including cyanide — a chemical warfare agent — arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. Those chemicals contaminated the potliners. And when the liners eventually wore out, an Alcoa crew composed primarily of Black workers jack-hammered them from the pots.
The company owned the town, so presented with ample acreage and unbridled by federal and state regulation, it polluted with impunity. Until 1988, when the EPA classified spent potliner as hazardous waste, the company had been burying the spent potliner and other detritus in dozens of unlined and often open dumpsites in and near West Badin for 60 years.
So far, Alcoa, the EPA and DEQ have identified 49 Solid Waste Management Units that have contaminated soil, groundwater, and in at least two instances — Little Mountain Creek and Badin Lake — with a range of chemicals: high levels of fluoride, cyanide, as well as cancer-causing compounds polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and PCBs. Of those units, two buildings have been cleaned and closed; interim measures were put in place at eight others. DEQ and the EPA determined the waste had been contained or remediated at 35 units and recommended no further action.
The focus is now narrowed to four contaminated areas where Alcoa had installed temporary measures. But the final cleanup phase requires permanent solutions.
- Groundwater at the North End, known as Solid Waste Management Unit 1, is where the plant originated before expanding. It is the most contaminated of the three sites because other waste units, such as former potliner storage pads, are nested within it.The North End is in a natural valley that was progressively filled with waste up to 24 feet deep. For decades, potliner leached cyanide and fluoride into Badin Lake, a popular fishing, boating and swimming area that also feeds the Yadkin-Pee Dee River, a major drinking water supply.
Even though Alcoa capped the dump in 1997, ostensibly to keep rain from infiltrating the waste and carrying contaminants to the lake, the levels of cyanide and fluoride increased between 2001 and 2012, and were above state groundwater standards, according to DEQ records. Anna Wade, a student with the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, told state regulators at a public meeting in November that this trend indicates the cap is insufficient to keep contamination out of the groundwater and ultimately, Badin Lake.
- Within the North End is the Pine Tree Grove Area, a former prong of Badin Lake that Alcoa filled in. A 2001 facility investigation called the grove “essentially a landfill area with a tree cover.” It contains waste up to 42 feet in spots. The site is directly across the two-lane highway from Badin Lake. A stormwater outfall is downhill from a dense bolus of waste; that outfall discharges within 50 feet of the public swimming area.
- To the northeast, the Old Brick Landfill, or Unit 3, is less a dump and more a behemoth pile of hazardous material, poised on a hillside 100 feet from Badin Lake. It contains roughly 22,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste. Alcoa capped it in 1987, but like at the North End, the cap failed to prevent water from infiltrating the landfill. Alcoa repaired the cap in 1997 after it again failed and caused a small landslide. The cap was updated yet again in 2006. Nonetheless, groundwater samples taken in 2011 and 2012 showed the levels of cyanide and fluoride were roughly the same.
- About a football field’s length from the corner of Wood and Lee streets in West Badin, lies the 14-acre Alcoa-Badin Landfill. Also known as Solid Waste Management Unit 2, it contains 64 years’ worth of spent potliner, factory waste and municipal trash, some of it four stories deep.
The air in West Badin hums. High-voltage transmission towers, like skeletons of dinosaurs, straddle the neighborhood. The upper portion of West Badin, a grid of 700-to-900-square-foot homes, many of them original worker housing, is perched on a hill. Below, only two homes are left on Lee Street. Alcoa sold the rest, including Hinson’s, to anyone who could afford to haul them away.
At the end of Lee Street, Alcoa has cordoned off the dump with a chain-link fence and a locked gate. But the buried waste observes no such boundaries. In 1991, a buildup of methane gas emanating from the dump ignited. A fire smoldered 300 yards north of the dump for three months. Neighbors, including Macy Hinson, watched it burn.
“It was a continuous flame,” Hinson said. “That waste is underground without a liner. And something is moving.”
In 1997, Alcoa installed an interim fix to keep rainwater from infiltrating the dump: a cap composed of two feet of clay and six inches of topsoil planted with grass. But the cap is powerless against groundwater. Polluted with cyanide, fluoride, arsenic and sulfate from the spent potliner, groundwater percolates through the soil. It obeys gravity, flows downhill and feeds a steady gruel of contaminants to the floodplain, wetlands and Little Mountain Creek — Area of Concern No. 1.
After eight years of uncontained pollution, in 2005, the company built a seep collection system to capture those contaminants and redirect the water to the Stanly County wastewater treatment plant. Yet even with the collection system, contaminants were detected in the Little Mountain Creek floodplain and in nearby monitoring wells in 2015, according to a presentation to DEQ by the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.
The persistent contamination into Little Mountain Creek prompted the Concerned Citizens of West Badin to sue Alcoa. In June, the group, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, negotiated a settlement that forced the company to install a new stormwater system to stem contamination entering Little Mountain Creek.
Some of the contamination has abated. Recent testing, though, shows levels of fluoride still exceed permit limits. The violations could trigger further litigation under the Clean Water Act.
“It’s not effective,” Chandra Taylor, an SELC senior attorney in charge of the case, said. “So there is still a waste problem. It’s contaminating precious resources. And the corporation has the assets to clean it up.”
Other sources could also be contributing to the contamination. Ground-penetrating radar suggests more waste could be buried beyond the fence line, which would corroborate Badin residents’ many documented reports of Alcoa’s profligate dumping.
Valerie Tyson lives near the top of the hill in West Badin, where she can walk less than a block and get a 360-degree view of Alcoa land. “It’s a struggle,” she said. “There are still people in West Badin, and this is basically a trash pile with a fence around it.”A t the top of the hill behind a row of houses, stretches a forest. Alcoa operated a wastewater treatment plant here, but the company also used the land as a dump for spent potliner, residents and former workers say. The company also routinely disposed of the hazardous waste along Jackson, Sherman and Lincoln streets.
Alcoa, the EPA and state officials have spent the last three decades documenting dozens of contaminated areas near and at the plant. But because Alcoa has not conducted a comprehensive investigation of its lesser-known disposal sites — and data is missing or misleading from other inquiries — the full extent of the contamination is unknown.
The fact that there is no complete accounting of the contaminated sites points to either the vastness of the problem or inertia by Alcoa, the EPA and DEQ — or both. According to state documents, Badin residents have repeatedly told state and EPA investigators, including in interviews in 2014, about other contaminated areas that so far have been excluded from potential cleanups:
- Three miles north, the operator of the now-closed Yadkin Brick Yard in New London, reportedly used hazardous waste from Alcoa and other sources as an ingredient in brick manufacturing during the 1990s. Spent potliner was used to partially backfill an old clay pit, and buried 10 to 15 feet deep, according to state documents. The land was subsequently sold to area residents, but it remains vacant and wooded.
- More brick, permeated with arsenic, from Alcoa’s carbon kilns was used to build a house on Broadway Road.
- Two miles south, a local trash hauler regularly disposed of Alcoa waste on his property on Kirk Road. The hauler has since died and the land has been sold.
- Potliner was also dumped on Alcoa property along Falls Road, as well as a few hundred yards off Ash Street east of town. That’s where Badin resident Roger Dick told state investigators he used to play in spent potliner as a boy.
- Roger’s brother, Jimmy, told investigators that he had dumped loads of brick and spent potliner on a flat area near the Badin Lake boat ramp.
That flat area became a baseball diamond. The Former Ballfield, or Area of Concern No. 2, home of what environmental advocates refer to as the Unidentified Buried Object.N ext to the boat ramp for Badin Lake lies a 14-acre, grassy area that looks ideal for a picnic. Beginning in 1950, people played baseball on a diamond here as friends and family watched from the grandstand. In the 1990s, the grandstands, lights and dugouts were demolished; the ballfield returned to grass.
What occurred on this acreage is suspect. Residents, local waste haulers, and former Alcoa workers have reported seeing spent potliner being buried there. Jimmy Dick, a former Stanly County Commissioner, told state and federal investigators that he himself dumped Alcoa waste there before it became a park.
In the EPA’s original assessment of contaminated sites presented in 1990, the ballfield was ignored. Based on community reports, the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic conducted its own investigation and found rock fragments composed of minerals associated with aluminum smelting on the property.
Petitioned by the clinic, state officials asked Alcoa to sample dirt from the old ballfield. That resulted in multiple hits of PCBs, PAHs, arsenic, fluoride, cyanide and more than a half-dozen other contaminants, some of them above EPA screening levels for residential surface soil — the most stringent threshold. All of these compounds point to the likelihood that spent potliner is buried there, just like the residents said.
Last year, Alcoa contractors were using ground-penetrating radar to survey the area. That’s when they discovered a “submerged object” near known areas of contamination and buried less than a foot below the boat ramp parking lot. The estimated size: 50 feet by 30 feet, or the square footage of a small ranch home.
DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard said the analysis showed the object is thin and likely non-metallic. “This indicates this is not an area where spent potliner is buried,” she said.
So Alcoa left it in the ground. Neither the state nor the EPA is forcing the company to dig it up to ensure it’s not a source of contamination.O n a recent Saturday afternoon, boaters were heading in from Badin Lake. Weather was scheduled to move in, and the blue skies had begun to change to the color of milk. Fishing in Badin Lake is best done as catch-and-release. Sampling has repeatedly shown PCBs are present in fish, prompting state health officials to issue a consumption advisory for catfish and bass. Despite the warning signs posted by the boat ramp, people still fish here to help feed their families.
Badin Lake is a good example of how long it has taken for Alcoa to install a permanent remedy, and one whose long-term effectiveness is unclear. In 1992, tests showed high levels of cyanide and PAHs in the lake. That year, the state outlined a corrective action plan to reduce the contaminant load. Alcoa eventually installed a cap on 3.7 acres of the 5,350-acre lake bottom — 20 years later, in 2012.
“The cap doesn’t cover the entire lake,” said Nancy Lauer, a science and policy fellow with the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We don’t know how far the contamination extends.”
Alcoa has repeatedly asked the state for deadline extensions to address the hazardous waste. And DEQ has repeatedly granted them. “Alcoa will agree to do something, then ask for an extension, and then do less,” Longest said. “What was considered proactive in the 1990s was just delaying the inevitable.”
But Leonard said DEQ approved those extensions “to provide for a more robust investigation of the areas.”
Yet even when these investigations have yielded alarming results, Alcoa has recommended the cheapest cleanup method. As recently as 2014, Alcoa originally proposed leaving the waste in place at four Solid Waste Management Units and installing “institutional controls” — a fancy name for a fence — to keep people out. Until the company submits a final cleanup recommendation, which must get state approval, it’s unknown whether Alcoa will strengthen its proposal.
“We’re waiting for something to happen,” Valerie Tyson of West Badin told state environmental officials last month. “We’ve talked and met long enough. Somebody should take responsibility.”
Alcoa spokesman Jim Beck did not answer specific questions from Policy Watch about the cleanup plan or the lingering contamination. He responded with a statement: “We continue to work cooperatively with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and other stakeholder groups to implement the requirements” of federal waste law and to “ensure that remediation plans are appropriate and protect the environment and human health.”
Alcoa and DEQ have argued that since no one is using the groundwater for drinking, people aren’t directly exposed to the contamination. Little Mountain Creek feeds Lake Tillery, but the reservoir is 15 miles downstream. However, federal hazardous waste law requires cleanups to protect not only public health but ecological health. A 2014 survey conducted by Professor Shea Tuberty of Appalachian State University showed fish in the upstream portion of Little Mountain Creek were generally healthy and numerous. But downstream, there were fewer fish and higher rates of disease, including fungal infections.
“They’re adopting the attitude that dilution is the solution to pollution,” Nancy Lauer, a science and policy fellow with the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Center said. “But that is outdated.”
Residents and environmental advocates have petitioned for the EPA to designate the area a Superfund site, which it did at similar facilities in Washington state and New York. However, with the EPA’s approval, DEQ has decided to remain the lead agency and regulate Alcoa under a different federal hazardous waste law, RCRA, or the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. While the cleanup requirements could be similar in either program, the enforcement is different. Under RCRA, DEQ enforces environmental standards through a hazardous waste permit. But Superfund requires the cleanup to be conducted under the weight of the courts via a judicial consent decree.
Within the next two weeks, Alcoa should submit its cleanup plan for the final phases. In West Badin, life continues as it always has: Many of the homes and churches are decorated for the holidays. From the street, they look warm. Someone is building a new house on Jackson Street, and dirt is piled on the construction site. Someone pushes a stroller down Lee Street, with the old plant as a dismal backdrop. Up the hill, Grant Street veers past woods owned by Alcoa. A sign has been posted. It reads: “No dumping.”