Testing shows pollution still too high at former N.C. smelting plant

Contamination levels of cyanide and fluoride at Alcoa’s Badin Works facility in Badin, North Carolina, are higher than a new permit allows. (© Nancy Pierce/Flight by Southwings)

Residents of the community surrounding North Carolina’s Badin Lake celebrated in June when SELC negotiated a settlement requiring a former aluminum smelting operation, shuttered in the ‘90s, to finally construct a stormwater system to stop contaminated groundwater from being discharged into nearby waters.

“But the celebration was more of a muted satisfaction,” says Senior Attorney Chandra Taylor, who litigated the case. “While we were happy about the strong settlement, we knew it was a small step forward in a long process.”

For years, neighbors had been asking for site clean up, in part to protect water quality nearby.  But each time the state considered renewing the water permit for the property, the company requested an extension on meeting pollution limits, claiming the pollution would decrease over time. The state agreed, granting the extensions, despite the ongoing pollution. It took neighbors pursuing legal action to finally get the company on a path to compliance.

Senior Attorney Chandra Taylor talks with Badin resident Macy Hinson along the shore of Badin Lake. (©Julia Rendleman)

As a result of the June settlement, the world’s eighth largest aluminum producer—Alcoa, operating under the shell corporation Badin Business Park—was forced to construct this new stormwater system, and was issued an updated permit that finally put limits on the amount of cyanide and fluoride it could discharge into waterways.

Though the new permit limits Alcoa to discharging no more than an average of five micrograms per liter a day, or nearly 1,500 percent less than the former amount, recent data collected shows the toxins are still exceeding the new limits.

“The permit limits are meant to protect public health and the environment,” says Taylor. “There should be ramifications for continuing to exceed the permitted levels. That’s the bottom line.”  

The new permit becomes fully effective October 31. If cyanide and fluoride levels have not decreased, there will be grounds for additional state penalties, and eventually, a federal lawsuit, she adds.

If the levels can’t be brought under the permit limits, Taylor says Alcoa may need to stop the practice of discharging contaminated water into Little Mountain Creek and Badin Lake altogether. Collecting and treating the water onsite could be a safer alternative.

Taylor has been working closely with West Badin residents affected by contamination from the shuttered aluminum smelting plant for nearly seven years. She says they are most concerned about Alcoa’s cleanup of on-site hazardous waste, which is currently sitting in an unlined landfill. A separate public hearing on the hazardous waste permit will take place November 19 in the Stanly County Commissioners Meeting Room, Stanly County Commons, 1000 North First Street in Albemarle from 6:00pm to 8:30pm.

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