Settlement puts lake, industrial site on path to clean up

Agreement imposes pollution restrictions, mandates new stormwater system

Alcoa’s shuttered facility in Badin, North Carolina, will no longer be able to discharge cyanide and other pollutants into the Town of Albemarle’s water supply and recreational fishing waters without heavy restrictions thanks to a settlement agreement. (© Julia Renderman)

Though a former aluminum smelting operation along the shores of North Carolina’s Badin Lake shuttered in the ‘90s, on-site hazardous waste has continued leaking into nearby rivers and streams. A recent settlement negotiated by SELC requires Alcoa’s Badin Works to construct a new stormwater system that will stop contaminated groundwater from being discharged into those surrounding water bodies where neighbors once fished. Now state-issued signs dot the shore advising those fish are unsafe to eat.

“The idea that Alcoa would shut down and then not be held accountable was really problematic,” says SELC Senior Attorney Chandra Taylor.

Alcoa, a $12 billion company and world’s eighth largest aluminum producer with operations in 10 countries, attempted to come out of the deal unscathed. In fact, the new settlement hardly mentions Alcoa, instead naming its shell corporation – the Badin Business Park, – as the entity that must clean up its act. But years of work by the residents of West Badin, which is adjacent to the industrial site and a largely African-American community home to many former Alcoa employees, finally forced action. SELC represented Concerned Citizens of West Badin in the negotiations.

For years, neighbors had been asking for clean up but each time the state considered renewing the permits for the property, the company requested an extension on meeting pollution limits, saying the pollution would decrease over time, and the state agreed. It took neighbors pursuing legal action to finally bring the company on a path to compliance.

Monitoring data shows high levels of cyanide, fluoride, and trichloroethylene in Badin Lake and Little Mountain Creek, where pollution is dumped from a drainage pipe that carries contaminated groundwater from beneath the Alcoa facility. While the exact source of the pollution is unclear, there are several possibilities based on former employees’ recollections of waste piles that would burn for days and a practice of dumping aluminum smelting waste into dirt pits on the property.

Badin Lake, the Town of Albemarle’s water supply, is now so polluted that fish consumption advisories are posted on its outskirts. Nearby Little Mountain Creek is also used for recreation, though they’re both considered state-designated impaired waterways because of the legacy of pollution.

Alcoa’s prior permit gave no limit on the amount of cyanide the company could discharge from its most-problematic outfall, and because of the dilapidated stormwater system in place, in some months upwards of 90 micrograms per liter is being discharged, according to documents obtained through records requests to DEQ. Due to the settlement, Alcoa has constructed a new stormwater system and will be held to discharging no more than an average of five micrograms per liter a day—or 1440% less than the former amount.

After almost a decade of involvement from SELC, the new permit goes into effect July 31.

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