Duke University submits report to DEQ about Alcoa contamination

Published 11:16 am Friday, December 13, 2019

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After speaking at a November public meeting regarding the on-site hazardous waste from Alcoa Badin Works in Badin that has continued to leak into nearby bodies of water, Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic submitted a comprehensive report Dec. 12 to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). It also sent a shorter cover letter to the N.C. Division of Waste Management, which is under DEQ. 

The report and letter are submitted on behalf of the Yadkin Riverkeeper, Inc., a nonprofit in Winston-Salem that looks after the health of the Yadkin Pee Dee River Basin, which includes Badin Lake.

Though the former Alcoa site has been dormant since 2007, for more than 70 years it produced large quantities of a waste material called spent potliner, which is specifically generated in the aluminum smelting industry. Hazardous contaminants found in the Alcoa spent potliner include toxic fluoride and cyanide which are leachable in water, along with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to Ryke Longest, co-director of Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. The contaminants have been allowed to leach and discharge into the environment which can potentially affect human health and aquatic life, the report said.

According to the 52-page report, Duke’s researchers, “with expertise in water quality, soil biogeochemistry and environmental toxicology,” reviewed 30 years of sampling data collected and numerous reports. They found three solid waste management units (SWMU) that were pollution sources to Badin Lake and Little Mountain Creek. The three SWMUs that contain the most buried spent potliner are the North Plant, Alcoa-Badin Landfill and Old Brick Landfill. The report contains detailed analysis of the three SWMUs, including graphs and pictures. 

Duke’s report “is a culmination of a decade’s worth of work,” Longest said.

Though Alcoa had enacted some temporary measures to try and limit the damage of the hazardous waste, the report makes clear that those measures have not been enough. 

“Based on our review, we find that the interim measures currently employed at the site, namely clay landfill caps and diversion trenches, are not adequate long-term measures to prevent the leaching and transport of contaminants from buried spent potliner,” the report said.

Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1980 to correct the problems Alcoa’s dumping of hazardous waste in Badin created, according to the cover letter. Alcoa has managed to delay the RCRA Corrective Measures process, which began in 1989, for several decades. The company has yet to complete Phases 4 and 5 of the process.

Two of the three worst sites of the contamination are directly adjacent to the historically black neighborhood of West Badin. Many of the residents of the neighborhood attended and spoke out during the November public hearing.

None of the landfills or dumpsites have liners which means the hazardous materials are in direct contact with the subsurface. Per the report, “The absence of any liner or subsurface barriers means hazardous wastes have leached into groundwater and discharged into surrounding surface waters, contaminating soil, groundwater and surface water for years.”

According to the report, the best remedy would be to excavate the hazardous waste from the three largest SMWUs and dispose of it properly and lawfully. In the letter, Duke urged DEQ to require Alcoa to excavate and remove the hazardous waste.

“Excavation and removal ensures that Badin’s health and environment will no longer be subject to Alcoa’s delays and evasive actions; the town’s health and environment will be permanently protected,” the letter stated. 

Both Badin’s town manager and mayor said, to the best of their understanding, that the solid waste sites are routinely being monitored and managed.

“My understanding is that solid waste management sites in the area are professionally monitored on a prescribed schedule and remain under state sanctioned mitigation and management practices,” Town Manager Jay Almond said. “My expectation is that any change in monitor data will correlate to an appropriate mitigation response.”

“Like most people, I am not formally educated in the details of environmental chemicals or environmental law,” Mayor Anne Harwood said. “It is my long understanding that the Alcoa site is regularly managed and monitored by our North Carolina regulatory divisions and any changes will be addressed by them.”

With Duke’s report having been sent to DEQ, Longest said the next step is to see what Alcoa will do. He said Alcoa is supposed to submit its final report to DEQ regarding its proposed solutions by the end of the year.

“On Dec. 31, we should see a new raft of information and reports coming out or they could request an extension of time,” he said. “I don’t know which one they will do.”

Multiple attempts were made by The Stanly News & Press to reach Alcoa environmental engineer Randall Kiser.

Duke will respond to whatever proposed solutions Alcoa submits. Longest said a public hearing should be scheduled next year for comments regarding Alcoa’s proposed solutions.

Longest said he anticipates Alcoa will likely monitor the hazardous waste sites and keep fences around them which is the cheapest way to handle it, “but it’s not cleaning anything up.”

Though unlikely, according to Longest, his hope is Alcoa will decide to clean up the hazardous waste sites.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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