To try to comply with state water quality requirements, the company has a creative, if dubious solution.
A proposed deal between Alcoa and the NC Department of Environmental Quality would allow the company to increase the amount of cyanide it discharges into Badin Lake, a popular fishing and swimming destination — and a drinking water supply — in Stanly County.
DEQ has not yet approved the proposal, called a Special Order by Consent. Based on a review of more than 300 public comments, the agency is “looking at all options,” DEQ spokeswoman Anna Gurney said.
The proposal also covers fluoride that would be discharged into the lake.
Exposure to small amounts of cyanide in air, food, or water can cause dizziness, headache, rapid breathing and heart rate, nausea, and vomiting. In large amounts, inhalation or ingestion of cyanide can be fatal. At high levels, exposure to fluoride can result in tooth and bone damage.
Elevated levels of both cyanide and fluoride have routinely been detected in stormwater flowing from Alcoa property through a discharge point known as “Outfall 005.” That outfall sends water into Little Mountain Creek, which is on the federally impaired waters list because of excessive pollution.
As part of a separate 2018 Special Order by Consent, DEQ had set permit limits on the amount of cyanide and fluoride that Alcoa could send into Little Mountain Creek through Outfall 005. In response Alcoa built a stormwater treatment system that was supposed to reduce contamination levels to comply with those permit limits.
Yet after two years, the treatment system isn’t working as planned. It is stemming some of the contamination, but Alcoa continues to violate its discharge permit for cyanide and fluoride leaving Outfall 005.
However, the company’s proposed solution is not to eliminate the source of contaminants or to treat the water. Instead, Alcoa plans to merely divert the water to a different discharge point that has a more lenient permit limit, according to an August 2020 compliance update sent to DEQ.
This discharge point is known as “Outfall 012,” right across the road and uphill from Badin Lake.
Chandra Taylor is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented Concerned Citizens of West Badin in litigation against Alcoa. “There’s no reason why the state should approve this,” Taylor said.
Instead of discharging the contaminated stormwater into the lake, Taylor said, Alcoa should build a collection system and then treat it to remove the contaminants.
Alcoa’s rationale for sending contaminated stormwater to Outfall 012 is that it’s in a “mixing zone,” which would presumably dilute the contaminated stormwater as it enters the lake. And once in Badin Lake, the cyanide would be diluted further, Alcoa documents say.
The contamination originates at the former Alcoa aluminum smelting plant on the brim of West Badin, a historically Black neighborhood built by the company shortly after it arrived more than a century ago.
Alcoa buried tons of the spent potliner, a byproduct of smelting, on its property and in the West Badin neighborhood when there were no hazardous waste regulations prohibiting their disposal. But because some of the potliner has never been excavated, the legacy of cyanide and fluoride pollution has lingered well into a new era of stricter environmental laws.
Alcoa shut down its Badin operation in 2010. It subsequently formed a spinoff company Badin Business Park.
Alcoa did not respond to specific questions about the Special Order by Consent and the challenges it encountered in meeting permit requirements. Instead, the company issued a statement: “We take our environmental responsibilities seriously, and we are working to ensure full compliance at the Badin Business Park,” an Alcoa spokesperson told Policy Watch in an email.
“Work is already underway to upgrade a stormwater piping system to achieve compliance with North Carolina’s standards. The project is expected to be complete in the summer of 2022 and will not result in higher concentrations of cyanide being discharged into Badin Lake. We are confident that these efforts, in combination with our comprehensive remediation at the site, will be effective.”
Because of a lack of monitoring and sampling, there are no recent data showing how much cyanide and fluoride are currently in Badin Lake. DEQ samples North Carolina lakes only every five years, and typically doesn’t include testing for cyanide. Indeed, there is no record of the state sampling for cyanide for nearly 20 years; for fluoride, it’s been 10 years. What’s more, these were “ambient” samples, meaning the tests were intended to measure the general cyanide load in the lake, not at specific discharge points.
Other previous sampling of Badin Lake has yielded inconsistent and problematic results:
- In 1992, tests related to the Alcoa contamination showed high levels of cyanide and other contaminants in the lake. That year, the state outlined a plan to reduce the pollution load.
- In 1994, the state Division of Water Resources found cyanide levels in the Badin Lake at 5 parts per billion, the maximum threshold for fresh waters. The next year DEQ required Alcoa to conduct a water quality study to better measure cyanide levels in the lake.
- In 1996, Alcoa completed that study. It reportedly did not find detectable concentrations of cyanide at the specified sampling locations, according to DEQ. “It appears that the cyanide discharged to the lake is diluted or dissipated within a short distance from the discharge points,” DEQ documents read.
- The last time DEQ sampled Badin Lake for cyanide was 2002, state records provided by DEQ show, but exact results of those tests are unknown. Five samples taken over the summer and fall of that year showed cyanide levels less than 20 parts per billion. However, the levels could still have exceeded the state standard — by as much as four times. The laboratory equipment and testing method wasn’t sensitive enough to detect cyanide below the 20 ppb figure, DEQ’s Gurney said.
- In September 2011, five fluoride level samples were taken, but as with cyanide, detection limits prevented a precise measurement; it’s possible that concentrations were more than twice the state surface water standard.
Lacking an exact and current baseline of pollutants, it is difficult to know how much more the lake could receive and still remain within legal limits.
“We need to test for cyanide before they start discharging, right by the boat ramp and the swimming area,” said Edgar Miller, executive director of Yadkin Riverkeeper, Inc. Nor is it publicly known how a drought could affect the dilution of cyanide and fluoride. “We need to treat the water or remove it and the source of the contamination,” Miller said.
Gurney, the DEQ spokesperson, said the agency could consider requiring lake monitoring when Alcoa’s overall discharge permit comes up for renewal next year, but it is not part of the Special Order of Consent.
If DEQ approves the consent order, Alcoa’s final limits on cyanide leaving Outfall 005 and ultimately entering the lake would comply with state standards. But in the short-term the amount of cyanide would be far greater than otherwise legally allowed.
In the two years while the treatment system is upgraded, the daily maximum amount of cyanide that could be discharged into Little Mountain Creek would be more than nine times surface water standards. And on a monthly basis, the new temporary standards for cyanide would be even higher than previous interim standards: 45.6 parts per billion in the 2020 consent order, compared to 20 ppb in 2018.
As long as the spent potliners remain in the ground, it will be nearly impossible to permanently cut off the source of the contamination, said Nancy Lauer, a Science and Policy Fellow at the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. “The nature of the Special Order by Consent is just pushing off a remedy and allowing the contamination to continue,” she said. “It’s frustrating. It’s giving Alcoa another pass.”
Chandra Taylor is a board member of the N.C. Justice Center, the parent organization of Policy Watch.
Policy Watch retains editorial independence from the Justice Center.