Badin residents still demand accountability from Alcoa
On the last day of September, protestors marched through the streets of Badin, a small lakeside town about an hour east of Charlotte. The early autumn sun reflected off hand-drawn signs and printed banners that made demands of Alcoa — also known as: Aluminum Company of America. Alcoa ended aluminum production in Badin in 2007 after 91 years of operation.
“We just ask Alcoa to clean up what they messed up,” said Richard Leak, a former Alcoa employee, to the crowd gathered in front of Badin Lake. “And to give us back our way of life.”
Valerie Tyson, also a former Alcoa employee, started a chant. The crowd of about 80 people joined in.
Black residents make up more than 60% of West Badin, according to census data. The former aluminum smelting plant, a landfill, and a highway divide Badin in half — the post office, schools, fire department, shops, restaurants, and other services all reside in the predominately white East Badin.
Before the rally, a bus tour brought people to the Alcoa-Badin Landfill. Hinson looked over hills of wildflowers that glinted through the chain link fence. Approximately seventy years of municipal and industrial waste lie beneath the grass and flowers.
“We used to come down here and play,” said Hinson. “We didn’t have anything else to play with, so we [...] played in the trash piles.”
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, had a range of industrial uses — including cable insulation, floor finishes, and oil-based paints — until the Toxic Substances Control Act banned them in 1979. But the chemical persists in Badin. Alcoa used PCBs in some electrical equipment, and Hinson claims the chemical was applied to roads in West Badin to tamp down the dust before the town was incorporated.
In 2009, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services issued a fish consumption advisory when the Environmental Protection Agency found PCBs present in fish in Badin Lake. Leak and other community members have refrained from fishing in the lake since.
Leak worked many jobs at Alcoa during his 32 years with the company. But the most dangerous jobs, he remembered, were in the pot room, where aluminum was melted down. The group that serviced the pots, replacing the carbon heating blocks every month, was called the “bull gang.”
“The pot room job was to tap the metal out of the pots,” said Leak. “My job was to pull the carbon out — carbon was something like a piece of coal that burned for 30 days, and you swap it out.”
A 2020 study conducted by researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin listed some of the risks associated with the “repair of and waste management” of pots in the pot room, including inhaling black soot and exposure to asbestos and other toxic chemicals. The study suggested that pot room workers at the plant experienced higher cancer mortality than the general population, and Black men worked the greatest proportion of their years in the pot room.
“We feel like [Alcoa] done us wrong,” Leak said. “Because we should have been notified on what we were using and let the decision up to us.”
Alcoa denies knowingly exposing employees to hazardous conditions. Robyn Gross is the global director of Alcoa’s asset planning and management group. She manages the former plant in Badin as well as Alcoa’s other closed facilities.
“Over time, we learn more things about worker exposure,” Gross said. “We learn things about environmental protectiveness. But any allegation that we knowingly contaminated the soil or the water or employees or knowingly exposed them to hazardous conditions [is] just not true.”
The company stated that it provided personal protective equipment and training to workers when those practices became the industry standard.
In addition to taking responsibility for worker exposure when the plant was open, the Concerned Citizens of West Badin want Alcoa to excavate industrial waste from its unlined landfills. There are at least three former dumpsites on Alcoa property in Badin. The Alcoa-Badin Landfill and the former manufacturing facility, which includes an onsite dumpsite, border West Badin.
The dumpsites are unlined, which means that groundwater can move through the waste and accumulate chemicals as it passes through. Some of that groundwater exits via openings called outfalls, and Alcoa monitors for certain chemicals according to their wastewater and stormwater permit. Water can also seep out into the surrounding groundwater and surface water, which is monitored less frequently. The EPA requires modern landfills to include liners to avoid this kind of leaching.
“The reason there’s cyanide, fluoride, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other toxic materials coming into this water is not because of current manufacturing — that stopped a long time ago,” said Ryke Longest, co-director of the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic. “It’s the contaminant load from that hazardous waste that’s buried.”
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is writing a renewed wastewater and stormwater permit for Alcoa. In the meantime, the state allows Alcoa to operate under the conditions of the old permit. The Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic also asked that DEQ only renew the permit once, until Alcoa excavates the former dumpsites.
“The source material [that] is buried in these landfills is what's causing this contamination,” Longest said.
The exact amount and type of waste will remain unknown unless Alcoa excavates the former dumpsites. However, former employees said they know of at least one type of waste that remains underground. Leak remembers dumping spent potliner at some sites when he worked at Alcoa. Spent potliner is a hazardous waste generated by the primary production of aluminum. The Environmental Protection Agency banned spent potliner from land disposal in 1998 due to the “highly toxic” nature of the waste.
Alcoa maintains that there is no waste associated with the plant that poses a danger to the West Badin community today, nor does the company claim awareness of waste from the plant outside what it considers “landfill” boundaries.
But some community members don’t feel safe swimming or fishing in their lake. The same study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and UT-Austin found former plant workers have died from cancer rates higher than the general population, and the Concerned Citizens of West Badin feel like they have been excluded from important conversations between Alcoa and the state.
Alcoa’s wastewater permit expired last October. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is still reviewing the new permit. The Department has not released a deadline for the new draft, but a public comment period and hearings will follow its release.