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Duke University report raises concerns about Alcoa contamination

By Chris Miller
The Stanly News & Press

ALBEMARLE — Though Alcoa enacted some temporary measures to try and limit damage of the hazardous waste at its Badin Works site, a report from Duke University makes clear that those measures have not been enough.

After speaking at a November public meeting about on-site hazardous waste from Alcoa Badin Works that has leaked 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 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, it produced large quantities of a waste material called spent potliner for more than 70 years. Potliner is specifically generated in the aluminum smelting industry.

Hazardous contaminants found in potliner include toxic fluoride and cyanide which are leachable in water, along with other contaminants that 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 with the most buried, spent potliner are the North Plant, Alcoa-Badin Landfill and Old Brick Landfill.

Duke’s report “is a culmination of a decade’s worth of work,”said Ryke Longest, co-director of Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

“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 in 1980 to correct the problems Alcoa’s dumping of hazardous waste in Badin created, according to the report’s cover letter. But Alcoa has managed to delay the corrective measures process, which began in 1989, for several decades.

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 dump sites have liners, which means the hazardous materials are in direct contact with the subsurface. The report states, “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 sites 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 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,” Badin Town Manager Jay Almond said. “My expectation is that any change in monitor data will correlate to an appropriate mitigation response.”

While she echoed the town manager’s comments, Mayor Anne Harwood said, “Like most people, I am not formally educated in the details of environmental chemicals or environmental law.”

With Duke’s report sent to DEQ, Longest said the next step is to see what Alcoa does. 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.

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