Alcoa’s continued pollution in Badin draws attention of nonprofit group

The issue of Alcoa’s chronic polluting of the land and various bodies of water around Badin was brought into the spotlight Thursday as part of a virtual forum hosted by Reimagining America Project, a local organization that uses testimony, witnessing and atonement to combat systemic racism.

The organization hosted “Poisoned Land, Poisoned Water: A Legacy of Environmental Injustice and Racism in a North Carolina Company Town,” a 75-minute online discussion where stakeholders, including officials with the Yadkin Riverkeeper’s office, the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and Protect Badin Lake, spoke about the history of the contamination, its impacts on residents, especially people of color, and what needs to be done to hold Alcoa accountable.

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

Dangers to the community

High levels of cyanide and fluoride have been detected in stormwater flowing from Alcoa through a discharge point known as Outfall 005, potentially contaminating Little Mountain Creek, and then flowing into larger bodies of water including Lake Tillery. Two other discharge points, Outfall 012 and Outfall 013, are in close proximity to public swimming areas around Badin Lake.

The contaminants flow from 44 dump sites or solid waste management units (SWMU) at or near Badin Business Park, which is the site of the former aluminum operation and which Alcoa still owns, said Ryke Longest, co-director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Two of the three SWMUs that contain the most buried spent potliner are in and around West Badin, which presents health concerns for the predominately African American community.

Longest stressed that action needs to be taken to excavate the hazardous waste that has been buried throughout Badin, especially the three largest SMWUs, and dispose of it properly and lawfully.

“I think the bigger question is honestly why hasn’t the state of North Carolina ordered Alcoa to dig up the causes of this hazardous waste that is leaching out?” Longest said, noting the dump sites have been covered with dirt “and they are not protecting the environment.”

There is limited data regarding the general water quality of Badin Lake, Edgar Miller, executive director of the Yadkin Riverkeeper, said.

With Badin Lake located at the heart of the Yadkin Pee Dee River Basin, which covers more than 7,200 square miles of the Carolinas, “this site, as it degrades over time, regardless of what Alcoa tries to do to stabilize it, it will continue to introduce more and more of those toxins into the system,” Miller said.

Colleen McDaniel, co-president of Protect Badin Lake, a watchdog group formed in 2020, said she is concerned there are no warning signs posted about the outfalls flowing into the lake, including fishing and swimming areas.

“People are fishing and not knowing that there is water flowing directly off of that site in the specific outfalls meant to drain water away from the facility,” she said.

Many Black West Badin residents worked at Alcoa and were often assigned the least desirable jobs putting them in close proximity to hazardous toxins. Former employees have developed health issues over the years including cancer and asbestosis, a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

“Why is it that in some communities, these cleanups get done more quickly and for others, they languish for years?” Longest said, noting North Carolina has “ignored this problem for way too long and they’ve ignored the concerns of the people of West Badin and also all of those who use the lake.”

Dr. Libby McClure, an occupational epidemiologist who has studied the health disparities between Black and white workers at the former plant, published a scientific article showing there “has been excess cancer mortality among Black workers and potroom workers relative to the general population of North Carolina.”

West Badin resident Valerie Tyson said Alcoa “has a lot to be held accountable for,” with so many people having been exposed to years of hazardous waste. She said additional signage needs to be posted letting people know that Badin Lake is contaminated.

“We need to let people know it’s dangerous,” she said of the lake. “It’s dangerous.”

Recommended changes to the NPDES permit

Alcoa reapplied last year for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stormwater permit, which expired at the end of October. The company is still operating under its previous permit.

Under the current permit, Alcoa is allowed to discharge contaminated water into Badin Lake and Little Mountain Creek through 11 release points, including Outfalls 005, 012 and 013.

Alcoa is only required to monitor for five pollutants and has to set discharge limits for only cyanide and fluoride.

Alcoa has had 16 violations for exceeding the fluoride limits and five violations for exceeding the cyanide limits since August 2019, Miller said. From 2019-2021, the company paid seven penalties totaling about $8,000.

Officials said they want DEQ to issue a more stringent stormwater permit for Alcoa, including requiring Alcoa to excavate the most dangerous of its hazardous waste sites. They also want the new permit issued to Alcoa to require the company to eliminate contaminants instead of diverting discharge into the waters, eliminate the discharges into public access areas and monitor for a wider range of contaminants.

“We’re hopeful that the state, with the public interest and support for doing something about this, that they will do the right thing eventually,” Miller said.

If the state does not intervene, he added, there is a possibility the Environmental Protection Agency could get involved.

Reimagining America Project will host a second forum about Alcoa’s pollution, specifically its impacts on the West Badin community, at 7 p.m. March 20.