Concerned Badin citizens meet to discuss hazardous materials from old Alcoa site

Though Alcoa Badin Works has been shuttered since 2007, residents and health officials claim on-site hazardous waste has continued to leak into nearby bodies of  water including Little Mountain Creek and Badin Lake, causing much concern and anger among many Badin citizens. 

The concerns were heard Tuesday night as residents, health officials and students from Duke University’s Environmental Law & Policy Clinic met in Albemarle about the issue. The meeting was facilitated by officials from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the N.C. Division of Waste Management. 

Though the former Alcoa site has been dormant for years, for many decades it produced large quantities of a waste material called spent potliner, which is specifically generated in the aluminum smelting industry. 

“It’s basically a combination of carbon and everything that’s not aluminum that is generated when aluminum is produced,” Ryke Longest, co-director of Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, said.

Hazardous contaminants found in the Alcoa spent potliner include toxic fluoride and cyanide which are leachable in water, along with polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Longest said.

The contaminants are absorbed, like a sponge, into the material and get released over time into the ground.

“It’s like a bunch of wet sponges filled with fluoride compounds and cyanide compounds and when you put them in the ground and water gets in contact with them in any way, through groundwater or otherwise, it moves and gets into the surface water,” Longest said. 

Alcoa opened its aluminum smelting operation in Badin in 1917 and the company dumped hazardous waste without regulation until 1980, he said, when the EPA established the first Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulation declaring spent potliner a hazardous waste.

There are 46 dump sites or solid waste management units (SWMU) at or near the current Badin Business Park, which is the site of the former aluminum operation and which Alcoa still owns. The three SWMUs that contain the most buried spent potliner are the North Plant, Alcoa-Badin Landfill and Old Brick Landfill. 

None of the landfills or dumpsites have liners which means the hazardous materials are in direct contact with the subsurface, Anna Wade, one of the Duke students, said.

The Alcoa-Badin Landfill still leaches contaminants into the nearby Little Mountain Creek while North Plant and Old Brick Landfill leach contaminants into Badin Lake. 

Longest said the drinking water has thus far not been impacted, but the fish in the area, especially in Little Mountain Creek, have been affected. Fish consumption advisories are posted around the town. 

Though Alcoa has enacted interim measures to try and limit the damage of the hazardous waste, including putting up fences around the plant and dump sites and applying a mixture of soil, grass, clay and straw to cover the landfill sites, Longest said the measures have only been a temporary remedy.

“It’s not going to get worse, but it’s not going to improve,” Longest said. 

Wade said many of the covered landfills are wet, which suggests infiltration is still happening. 

A solution would be to excavate the hazardous material from the ground and put it into a hazardous waste landfill that’s not near any body of water. 

Citizens voice their displeasure

Several Badin residents and concerned citizens were at the meeting and voiced anger and displeasure toward Alcoa and the state for not doing enough to clean up the site. 

Macy Hinson, who lives in west Badin, said contaminants in the Alcoa-Badin Landfill are flowing into Little Mountain Creek, which runs into Lake Tillery. However, Longest said Lake Tillery has not been affected by the contaminants.

“You don’t cover up PCB and get rid of it,” he said. “It’s there forever.”

Hinson said the trash dump needs to be excavated and the hazardous materials taken away. 

Other people were more blunt.

Kelly Irwin, who lives on Badin Lake, said it’s “unbelievable to me” that Alcoa has been dumping toxic waste in the area for 100 years. He wanted to know why the state hasn’t forced the company to do something about it. 

“Whatever remedies they were trying to do haven’t worked and so I don’t understand why they don’t clean up the facility,” Irwin said. 

“How many people don’t realize just how bad this is and they’re actually eating fish caught out of the lake?” Badin resident Polly Martin said.

Norwood resident Danny Coburn said if he left his trash on the ground, his father would make him pick it up.

“We should demand that Alcoa clean up their trash,” he said. 

Ron Bryant also lives in Norwood and said he worked for a corporation that polluted.

“However, my corporation discovered their pollution and spent 40 years…cleaning it up without being told to do it by any organization,” he said.

Valerie Tyson is a member of the Concerned Citizens of West Badin. She said members of the group have attended numerous meetings, talked with officials and showed their concerns about the clean-up for the past decade and “we’re still waiting on something to happen.”

“We want it cleaned up,” Tyson said. “When you mess up, clean it up.”

Ashley Daniels of Wilmington was in attendance to show support for the Concerned Citizens of West Badin. She has worked with North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

While Badin residents consented and agreed to work for Alcoa, they did not consent to being negatively impacted due to hazardous materials, Daniels said. 

“There is no conceivable way that a company should make hundreds, thousands, millions of dollars off a community and have an option to determine how much they want to clean it up,” Daniels said.

The Concerned Citizens of West Badin filed a lawsuit with the Southern Environmental Law Center against the state in 2017 to try and limit the contaminated groundwater being released into nearby bodies of water.

The SELC negotiated a settlement with Alcoa in June, requiring the company to construct a stormwater system to stop contaminated groundwater from being released, SELC attorney Chandra Taylor said. The company was also issued an updated permit, effective Oct. 31, that put limits on the amount of cyanide and fluoride it could discharge into waterways.

The improvements to the stormwater system have not worked, Taylor said, and though the cyanide levels are lower, they still exceed N.C. water quality standards and so the company “is almost certainly in violation of that permit.”

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