By Will Atwater
Valerie Tyson was the first member of Concerned Citizens of West Badin to address the crowd gathered in the park.
“We are so thankful for each and every one of you for coming so far and showing love toward us, caring about our welfare, our health,” Tyson said.
She shared her remarks with roughly 60 supporters who came to the Stanly County town of West Badin on Saturday, Sept. 30, to participate in a rally organized by Concerned Citizens of Badin and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, which promotes health and environmental equality for North Carolinians.
Rally organizers allege that Alcoa Aluminum company, which operated for a century and closed in 2007, exposed employees to toxic materials from the aluminum smelting process for decades, while also contaminating the environment, including Badin Lake and Little River Creek. Locals allege the plant left behind toxic waste that’s continued to affect their health.
“We’ve been fighting a fight, and sometimes our arms get tired. But you can’t give up, not when you know it’s right,” said Tyson, who worked at Alcoa for 27 years.
The organizers want the Department of Environmental Quality to renew Alcoa’s National Permit Discharge Elimination System permit and to require the company to clean up hazardous waste in the West Badin community, for which they claim Alcoa is responsible. They allege that pollution is the source of illnesses, such as cancer, that have affected the community and, they say, resulted in some deaths.
“We think the state needs to require [Alcoa] to either treat the water before it’s [discharged] into Badin lake or Little Mountain Creek,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper Edgar Miller, “or they need to excavate the contaminated soil in areas they buried hazardous waste to eliminate the source of contamination.”
This issue has divided the community and generated questions about the impact of company towns, the absolute power they wielded during the 19th and 20th centuries, and, in this case, the lingering effects of racism and lax environmental oversight.
Before arriving at the park, rally participants gathered across the highway from the entrance to the Alcoa plant to display signs and march while chanting slogans such as “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! This toxic waste has got to go.”
Separate and unequal
In 1916, Alcoa purchased a partially completed aluminum factory from a French company. The sale included the factory and the surrounding homes that were built to house workers. Alcoa completed the factory and built more homes and amenities for its workforce.
Black employees lived in West Badin, and their white colleagues lived in what was then known as East Badin, now known as Badin. Both communities had schools and parks. But it’s easy to see the contrast between the two areas — with Badin featuring bigger homes, a large park and Badin Lake.
There is a fish advisory posted at the lake, which recommends that people eat no more than a meal a week of fish caught from the lake. Buoys in one section mark where people should avoid swimming because it’s near an outfall, or discharge area, where hazardous chemicals are periodically released into the water. After a 1992 court case, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site and the site has been monitored in the decades since the plant closed.
Alcoa applied for a discharge permit renewal last spring; it has not yet been granted.
“They are allowed to continue operating under the expired permit until a new one is issued,” said Jasmine Washington, an associate attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“We’ve been advocating for stronger provisions in the permit — more frequent testing, more testing of different pollutants, and also for the permit to be issued expeditiously,” Washington said.
In response to allegations by Concerned Citizens of West Badin, Alcoa said no unacceptable risks have been discovered in the area.
“The Badin site operated for more than 100 years. Before the plant closed in 2007, Alcoa started work on an extensive cleanup of legacy issues,” said Robyn Gross, global director, asset management for Alcoa.
“Numerous studies and research, including some conducted with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, have demonstrated there are no unacceptable risks present, based on current and future industrial uses of the property.”
Nonetheless, in the back and forth between North Carolina regulators and the company, NC DEQ has noted that “reasonable potential still exists for water quality violations” from some of the outflows from the landfill area. At least one outfall has had increased discharges of cyanide and fluoride in recent years.
In addition to pollution concerns, Black employees also allege they experienced racism and unsafe conditions while working at Alcoa. Nonetheless, Tyson said she’d still considered it a good job because of the benefits, such as housing.
However, the amenities were insufficient to compensate for the hardship some said they’d had to endure.
While working as a forklift operator, Tyson recalls that she was loading an 18-wheeler one day and realized that someone had cut the machine’s brake line.
“It was instances like that that let me know it was a good-paying job, but I [would have] to go through stuff.”
Richard Leak worked at Alcoa for 30 years as a pot liner, which he said involved repairing pots used to hold chemicals in aluminum manufacturing. The materials included asbestos (used to insulate the pots), fluoride and black coal tar, among other things, Leak said.
“All that stuff was cancer-causing material, and nobody told us,” he said. Leak also said that he attributes the asbestos scars in his lungs to years of handling hazardous materials at Alcoa.
According to Leak, employees disposed of hazardous material in the West Badin community. As a result, he believes there is a connection between many illnesses experienced by employees, their family members, and people who lived near the hazardous waste dump.
“A lot of the people that were dying had never been in the plant,” he said. “We took a lot [of contaminants] home with us, and we would wash our clothes with our kids’ clothes — we washed hazardous material with our kids’ clothes.”
Gross disputes that Alcoa was responsible for dumping hazardous waste in West Badin.
“There are no waste sites located in West Badin associated with plant operations. Many years ago, evidence of illegal dumping on our property by third parties was discovered near the former wastewater treatment facility in West Badin,” she said in an email response.
“An environmental consulting firm assessed the site and found household waste, building debris, automotive waste, and other contents. This waste was not produced by Alcoa. The waste and impacted soils were excavated and removed, and steps were taken to prevent illegal dumping.”
‘A community effort’
Mary Jane Watkins, a UNC Chapel Hill student and West Badin resident, fought through tears as she spoke about the ongoing environmental battle.
“As some of you know, North Carolina is a state where the term environmental racism was coined — and for good reason. The fight against ecological violence and exploitation is one that we can find throughout our history,” she said.
A few days after the rally, Watkins emailed her thoughts about the broader message represented by West Badin’s push for environmental justice.
“This issue crosses generational, racial, socioeconomic, and political lines,” she said. “Although the harm Alcoa Aluminum has caused has most greatly affected Black, lower-income people it is key that we all work together to fight back. With a collective spirit, anything is possible.”
Soon, the Concerned Citizens of West Badin will meet to discuss how to proceed. While there are more questions, such as if and when NCDEQ will renew Alcoa’s discharge permit and whether it will have the strict regulations demanded by West Badin supporters, one thing is clear: the Concerned Citizens of Badin are not looking for a financial settlement.
As Tyson has said on several occasions, “We want Alcoa to clean up what they messed up.”