After receiving 350 public comments, DEQ “withdraws” from proposed Special Order by Consent with Alcoa

Alcoa/Badin Business Park violated its discharged permit limits for cyanide and fluoride leaving Outfall 005, which flows into Little Mountain Creek. The creek ultimately connects with Lake Tillery, a drinking water reservoir, about six miles downstream. Alcoa had proposed pumping the contaminated water to Outfall 012, where cyanide and fluoride will flow into Badin Lake. The company predicted the volume of lake water would dilute the pollution to meet legal standards. West Badin, a historically and predominantly Black community lies alongside the former Alcoa plant, beginning at Wood Street near Outfall 005. (Map: Alcoa 2020 update to DEQ)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is returning the Alcoa’s application for a Special Order by Consent and the proposal as drafted “will not be moving forward,” the agency announced today.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Alcoa’s spinoff company Badin Business Park had proposed increase the amount of cyanide it discharges into Badin Lake, a popular fishing and swimming destination — and a drinking water supply — in Stanly County. The proposal also covered fluoride that would have be discharged into the lake.

The company has failed to rein in its discharge of cyanide throughout Outfall 005 into Little Mountain Creek, resulting in stormwater permit violations. To circumvent those violations, Alcoa/Badin Business Park had proposed building a pipe that would have funneled that discharge to a different point, Outfall 012, near the swimming beach and boat ramp. The company’s rationale for this plan was that dilution in the “mixing zone” would keep cyanide and fluoride levels in the discharge within permitted limits.

Luis Pinto, director of corporate affairs for Alcoa, issued a statement about DEQ’s decision: “Badin Lake is a special place, and we know how much it means to the community. While our proposal would have ensured compliance with all regulations and would have been well within the limits to protect human health and the environment, we will work with local residents and the NC Department of Environmental Quality regarding the next steps in this process. Alcoa has been part of the Badin community for generations, and we are committed to fulfilling our environmental responsibilities and engaging with our stakeholders to find solutions.”

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. Environmental advocates want Alcoa to remove the immense tonnage of spent potliner, spread over dozens of acres. These advocates include Concerned Citizens of West Badin, which has fought Alcoa for more than a decade over a cleanup; the Yadkin Riverkeeper; and a new group of residents who live or have second homes around Badin Lake.

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.

Badin Business Park will also be required to pay civil penalties assessed in September and October 2020 for noncompliance with its discharge permit. There were five separate penalties, totaling $2,328. DEQ had deferred the penalties while Special Order by Consent was under review.

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