Dishonorable discharge: Runoff from a former industrial site is contaminating an important NC lake

Dishonorable discharge: Runoff from a former industrial site is contaminating an important NC lake

- in Environment, News, Top Story
The swimming area of Badin Lake in Stanly County where Alcoa discharges contaminated stormwater (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Alcoa’s continued discharge of toxics into Badin Lake, a popular fishing and swimming destination, linked to paltry fines, lax state oversight 

Alcoa, the eighth-largest aluminum company in the world, whose global reach spans 11 countries, claims on its website that it “operates with excellence” and “cares about people around the globe.”

The residents of West Badin, in Stanly County, and many of their neighbors across Badin Lake disagree.

Alcoa, which operated an aluminum smelter there for nearly a century, has incurred nearly two dozen violations for discharging contaminants into Little Mountain Creek and Badin Lake since 2019. This includes high amounts of cyanide – as much as 540% more than legally allowed –and fluoride, at times at third higher than permitted.

Meanwhile, the state Division of Water Resources has fined Alcoa, a $13 billion company, just $12,597 for the repeated violations over the last three years.

A DWR spokeswoman said the division is reviewing the fines assessed for these violations.

Lax monitoring requirements and anemic penalties by DWR, and spurious proposed solutions by Alcoa, have prompted several citizens’ groups to demand stronger regulations, including a full cleanup of the site and a more accurate environmental justice analysis, as part of the company’s renewed discharge permit.

Known as an NPDES, the federal permit is administered by the state. It governs Alcoa’s stormwater discharge from its contaminated former aluminum smelting operation now known as Badin Business Park in Stanly County, into nearby waterways. Badin Lake is a popular fishing and swimming destination. Little Mountain Creek forms the headwaters of Lake Tillery, the primary drinking water supply for Montgomery County, and in 2025, Union County. Most of the site lies within the West Badin community, which is more than 80% Black.

DWR could issue a draft permit for public comment before the end of the year. The division could also hold a public hearing, given community interest in the issue.

Concerned Citizens of West Badin, Protect Badin Lake petition DEQ for stronger regulations

* Prohibit contaminated discharge into Badin Lake and Little Mountain Creek
* Eliminate “mixing zones” that Alcoa can use to dilute contamination in waterways
* Require more precise testing of contaminants, and a wider range of them Impose maximum fines
* Mandate that Alcoa excavate thousands of tons of spent potliner buried underground

“Somehow, Alcoa has managed to evade responsibility,” Edgar Miller, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, told the 125 people who attended a recent citizens’ meeting.

Buried industrial waste

The source of the contamination is thousands of tons of spent potliner, a byproduct of aluminum smelting. Alcoa buried the potliner, which contains several cancer-causing compounds, in three unlined areas on and around the 120-acre property, including the old city dump that sits on the edge of West Badin.

Contaminants leach from the potliner, travel through the groundwater, and flow through a dozen discharge points, also known as outfalls. In turn, several of the outfalls flow into the lake and the creek.

“There’s a connection between what’s going in the water and what’s coming off the land,” Miller said.

Spent potliner contains cyanide and fluoride. Other contaminants at the site include heavy metals and PCBs, which are known to cause cancer, and PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs include benzo(a)pyrene, a probable carcinogen that can also irritate the eyes and skin.

However, of those contaminants in stormwater, DWR currently has set maximum levels only for cyanide and fluoride. For TCE, aluminum and total chloride, DWR has set no limits; Alcoa only has to document it is discharging them, said Jasmine Washington, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

A DWR spokeswoman told Policy Watch in an email that sampling data for several pollutants, including PCBs and PAHs, in waters discharged from Outfall 5, which empties into Little Mountain Creek, “showed no reasonable potential to exceed state water quality standards.”

Richard Leak worked at Alcoa, one of the many Black men who were permanently assigned the most dangerous jobs. “I took spent pot liner to the landfill,” which was unlined, Leak said. “We dumped hazardous waste on the ground and in storm drains.”

Leak said he saw paperwork while on the job showing who in the plant was exposed to asbestos and radiation. “We did a survey and 80 to 85% of Black men who worked at Alcoa died of cancer. We want them to clean up that site, to do what’s best for the community, our children and grandchildren.”

Questionable testing and remediation practices

The lenient testing protocol also allows Alcoa to game the system. DEQ requires Alcoa to submit only a monthly average for cyanide and fluoride. For example, if the first monthly sample for cyanide measures below the permitted threshold of 5 parts per billion, Alcoa doesn’t have to test again for another 30 days, Miller, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, said.

Alternately, if sampling results show concentrations above the limit, the company can test multiple times to increase the chances that it will be in compliance. As a comparison, this situation would be like a drunk driver registering a .15 blood alcohol concentration, but taking the test several times later to come in under the legal limit of .08.

This water testing scenario occurred in December 2021, according to Ryke Longest, co-director of the Duke University Law and Policy Clinic. According to state documents also reviewed by Policy Watch, levels of cyanide in stormwater entering Badin Lake on Dec. 13 measured at 37 parts per billion, more than seven times the monthly limit, but less than the allowable daily maximum.

The stormwater from this outfall flows directly into the public swimming area.

Later that month, from Dec. 21-29, Alcoa collected eight more samples, which showed concentrations below the permitted limit. Those extra samples allowed Alcoa to report its monthly average as 4.1 ppb, just below the regulatory threshold.

The DWR spokeswoman said the monitoring protocol is more nuanced. There are limits on daily maximums and monthly averages for cyanide and fluoride. If Alcoa samples only once per month, it cannot exceed the daily maximum.

DWR followed EPA guidance and did not place limits for these pollutants in the permit. However, the spokeswoman said, “this does not mean they are not found elsewhere on the site.”

Robyn Gross, director of transformation at Alcoa, rebutted the claim that more frequent monitoring artificially lowers the results. “In most circumstances, any given sample will be representative of any other. More frequent monitoring will not change the results, ultimately.”

While the site complies with the daily limitations, Gross said, it “cannot consistently meet the monthly average limit at Outfall 5 at this time. Current levels however do not pose a threat to human health or the environment. We are evaluating technologies to address this exceedance however, as we are focused on complying with the limits set forth by NC DEQ.”

For purposes of calculating the monthly average, documents show that levels of cyanide below 6 ppb are converted to zero ppb. In a letter to DWR, Longest noted that instead of listing these values as zero, one scientific practice is to average the so-called “non-detects” at half the reporting limit, in this case 3 ppb.

However, even with this leeway, Alcoa has still failed to comply with its permit. Regarding Little Mountain Creek, the company acknowledged in May that it has failed to bring its discharge “into consistent compliance with the fluoride limit.” In an Aug. 26, 2022, letter to the company, state regulators noted “the data provided does not demonstrate that fluoride and total cyanide concentrations in Little Mountain Creek downstream of Badin Business Park consistently meet water quality standards.”

Longest said the company’s “multiple violations suggest we are far from a reality where Alcoa’s buried waste is no longer contaminating the surrounding environment.”

To comply with water quality standards Alcoa, with state approval, establishes “mixing zones,” another way of saying a location where there is enough water to dilute the contamination. There is one mixing zone in Badin Lake that is near a fishing and swimming area, and the boat ramp.

Alcoa has proposed a second mixing zone for Little Mountain Creek. However, the company used outdated federal figures to calculate the effectiveness of such a zone. “A single data point from a potentially abandoned US Geological Survey or wastewater treatment plant station from 20 plus years ago can’t be used,” wrote Douglas Dowden, an environmental program supervisor with DWR, “especially when USGS has made a more recent determination.”

The company has claimed there is no economically feasible technology to treat the contaminated stormwater before it enters the waterways. DWR rebutted that claim, writing, “This office believes that all available technologies have not been explored.”

Howard Weinburg, a professor at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health is sampling Badin Lake alongside Alcoa, a process known as “split sampling.” Weinburg will send the samples to a lab whose testing methods are more sensitive and can detect contaminants as low as 2 parts per billion. Alcoa uses a lab that tests only down to 5 ppb, which could miss lower concentrations of the contaminants. Weinburg told meeting attendees last week that all data “will be released in the public domain.”

Base map and census data: DEQ

Environmental justice concerns

As part of the discharge permit renewal, the state Department of Environmental Quality must conduct an environmental justice analysis. While these analyses rarely result in a denial, they can inform modifications to a permit.

However, the analyses are often flawed. They rely on data from census tracts, larger geographic areas that encompass 1,200 to 8,000 people. In contrast, census block groups, which DEQ uses in its community mapping system, are smaller and contain 600 to 3,000 people. Using the larger tracts can dilute the percentage of non-white and low-income residents.

In the case of Alcoa, the draft environmental justice report shows the two census tracts that include and are adjacent to the site are predominantly white, ranging from 68% to 76% of the population. However, in the census block group, roughly half of residents are non-white. A walk through West Badin, formerly a segregated village for Black Alcoa workers, tells a starkly different story: Most of that neighborhood is 60% to 80% Black.

Sharon Martin, DEQ deputy secretary for public affairs, told Policy Watch in an email that the draft environmental justice report is “to support further stakeholder discussion. The community is invited to provide comment on the EJ report and DEQ will consider that input as we prepare for the public process tied to the NPDES permit renewal.”

Macy Hinson is a member of the Concerned Citizens of West Badin who worked at Alcoa for nearly 33 years. He and many other members of the group want Alcoa to excavate the spent pot liner from the site. Eliminating the hazardous waste is the only reliable way to prevent contamination from entering Little Mountain Creek and Badin Lake, he said. “Some material is buried 80 feet deep,” he said. “You have to clean it up, not just scrape it.”

Hinson also said West Badin residents are excluded from major decisions about the future of the site. “Whenever anything is proposed for Badin Business Park, we are never asked. No one contacts us to say, ‘How do you feel?'” 

The former Alcoa plant, now the Badin Business Park (File photo: Lisa Sorg)