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Κυριακή, 23 Ιουνίου, 2024

The Alabama town living and dying in the shadow of chemical plants | Health

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For decades the two companies dumped DDT, mercury and other toxic chemicals in the area.

In the 1980s, the US government created the Superfund programme, which oversees the cleanup of the country’s most dangerous hazardous waste dumps, industrial facilities and mines. In 1984, both Olin and Ciba-Geigy (now BASF) were designated Superfund sites – Olin for mercury (used until 1982 to make chlorine and caustic soda) and other heavy metal contamination in ground and surface water, soil, sediment and plant and animal life, and Ciba-Geigy for DDT contamination of groundwater, soil, sludge and sediment.

Once the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates an area as a Superfund site, the state environmental agency, in this case ADEM, regulates the company’s compliance with federal safety guidelines, while conducting periodic reviews of the cleanup.

DDT and mercury are “legacy contaminants” or chemicals that are now banned by the EPA but their past contamination can pose an ongoing health risk to communities and wildlife.

Ciba-Geigy, which was acquired by BASF in 2009, dumped toxic waste like DDT into open, unlined pits up until the 1970s, many in the Tombigbee River’s floodplain within the 76-acre (31-hectare) Olin Basin.

During the 1970s, Olin dumped chemicals like mercury and pesticides, including hexachlorobenzene (HCB), into a ditch flowing into the basin, which discharges into the Tombigbee River.

In 2020, the EPA found mercury, HCB and byproducts of DDT in the Olin Basin.

In December 2020, the EPA and the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against Olin and BASF (for Ciba-Geigy’s past contamination before 2009), alleging that they are still failing to protect the local community and wildlife from the legacy chemicals. The lawsuit is based on the EPA’s findings that residual contaminated groundwater was present in the aquifer, which is the primary source of drinking water for McIntosh residents.

A federal judge issued a final consent decree in 2021 [PDF], ordering the two chemical companies to clean up the Olin Basin as part of their Superfund remediation obligations and pay the $13.4 million estimated cleanup cost.

In August 2023, the companies disputed this decree in court. They have yet to reach a settlement with a judge.

The Olin plant was designated a Superfund site in 1984 [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Michael Hansen, the former executive director of GASP, a non-profit group that works to reduce air pollution and advance environmental justice, says where communities are living near heavy industry, “Cancer is a common occurrence. In addition to that, asthma and other chronic breathing difficulties, heart disease and stroke, difficulty sleeping, nausea and learning impairment for children are common. It can stunt cognitive development as well as respiratory development”.

Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, the government regulates six of the most common pollutants that heavy industry produces. But manufacturing plants that use fossil fuels, like those in McIntosh, create 188 airborne pollutants considered toxic emissions, many of which are carcinogenic, explains Hansen.

“This creates a cumulative impact, and if there’s more than one plant in an area, you start looking at what is called a ‘sacrifice zone’ where residents who live near the vicinity are sacrificed for the sake of industry,” Hansen says.

McIntosh, he says, is one such sacrifice zone.

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