Industrial pollution leaves deep scars
by Sydney Cromwell
In North Birmingham, Charlie Powell has buried three family members due to cancer in the last year. His wife and his sister are both battling cancer now.
“The people in the neighborhood are dying,” Powell said.
In Anniston, Shirley Carter says her city probably has more illnesses than anywhere else in the state.
“If we’re not the sickest, we’re up there at the top,” she said.
In Lawrence County, Brenda Hampton has been handing out bottled water to her neighbors for seven years because the water hasn’t been safe to drink.
“No one really wanted to believe that you could go to your sink and you could turn on your water and it could cause you diseases,” Hampton said.
Powell, Carter and Hampton have watched decades of industrial pollution shatter their communities.
“It’s been a long haul,” Carter said.
These catastrophic contamination sites are the kind of problem that the federal Superfund program was designed to fix. But getting that pollution cleaned up is sometimes easier said than done.
And restoring a poisoned community to health? That’s even harder.
“THE OTHER 5% IS DEAD”
Everyone who lives in North Birmingham has stories of family members lost to disease, or suffering from lifelong chronic illness. Keisha Brown has heard story after story of cancer, COPD, asthma and other diseases.
“95% of the community is on medication. The other 5% is dead,” Brown said. “… They’re sick with something that’s not their fault.”
It isn’t a coincidence that her neighborhood, along with the rest of the community inside the 35th Avenue Superfund site, was literally built on top of contaminated soil.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s testing in North Birmingham, beginning in 2011, exposed high levels of arsenic, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (a group of chemicals, also known as PAHs, that are found in coal, crude oil and gasoline and are linked to several cancers) in the soil. All of these chemicals came from surrounding industry, including coke, metal and concrete manufacturing.
Arsenic, lead and PAHs are just a few of the 770 chemicals that the EPA monitors in the air, soil and water because they are considered dangerous at high enough levels. The chemicals on the Toxic Release Inventory can cause a variety of illnesses if improperly handled, including cancers, neurological damage, birth defects, respiratory trouble and damage to other organs.
“They’re sick with something that’s not their fault.”Keisha Brown, North Birmingham resident
The contamination may come from everyday industrial processes, such as mining or coke manufacturing. It can enter the environment through an accident, like a train derailment. Or, it can be the result of negligence, such as improperly dumping hazardous materials.
Alabama has 17 Superfund sites.
See the end of this article for a list of all Alabama Superfund sites and an update on their cleanup progress.
In North Birmingham, residents have been told that they shouldn’t grow a vegetable garden, eat outside or track soil into the house, due to the pollution they might be exposed to.
“That to me is a sad way to live,” Brown said.
Shauntice Allen, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at University of Alabama – Birmingham, said people living in and around the Superfund site have questions about whether they’re living in a “cancer cluster.”
“People talk about wanting their children to be healthy and play outside, just like anybody else’s child, but in a clean outside where it’s safe to breathe the air,” Allen said.
At the Redwing Carriers Inc. Superfund site in Saraland, an entire apartment complex was demolished and its residents relocated in the 1990s because they had been exposed to a number of chemicals, including arsenic, PAHs, lead, pesticides, plastic additives and solvents, in the soil under the complex.
At the Triana / Tennessee River Superfund site, in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the pesticide DDT has been found in the fish, a hazard both to the environment and to anyone who catches and eats fish in that area. DDT has also escaped into the soil and water near the Ciba-Geigy Corp. and Olin Corp. Superfund sites, both in Washington County.
The fish in Choccolocco Creek, near Anniston, are off-limits to eat as well, due to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. PCBs were produced by the former Monsanto plant in Anniston until the 1970s, and they don’t easily break down, meaning they can stick around for years.
“PCBs are a known carcinogen and they are impacting from mother to child through breast milk,” Coosa Riverkeeper Justinn Overton said.
Her father is from Anniston and she grew up eating fish that she didn’t know were contaminated, “which is a huge reason why I do this work now.”
Choccolocco Creek flows into the much larger Coosa River.
“The Coosa is really heavily fished and so a lot of people don’t realize that the PCBs are still in the sediment on the Coosa River,” Overton said.
Blood tests and water samples in Anniston have both found record-setting levels of PCB exposure.
Anniston resident Shirley Carter said a health study in her community found high levels of kidney disease. PCBs have also been connected with diabetes, immune system damage, cancer, thyroid problems and high blood pressure.
“We think it causes lupus, heart disease. There are a lot of people on dialysis, and of course high blood pressure,” Carter said.
West Anniston, the side of the city closest to the Superfund site, “is just downtrodden. It’s like a ghost town,” Carter said.
Researchers across the country have studied the relationship between Superfund sites and the health of the people who live near them. These studies have shown links to higher occurrences of cancer, lower life expectancy, intellectual disabilities and childhood behavioral issues in communities close to these toxic sites.
Those same communities are likely to have other disadvantages based on poverty and race.
Due to historical policies like redlining, certain groups of people are more likely to feel the brunt of industrial pollution, and they often already have worse health and lack the political and financial resources to protect themselves.
There are thousands of subsidized-housing complexes located within a mile of a Superfund site, including in Birmingham and Anniston. According to the EPA in 2020, about a quarter of U.S. households below the poverty line live within three miles of a Superfund site, including 26% of Black Americans and 29% of Hispanic Americans.
A SOLUTION FOR POLLUTION
Since it became federal law in 1980, Superfund has been the primary way that the EPA has cleaned up hazardous waste contamination.
As of September 2022, there were more than 1,370 pollution sites across the United States that were either listed on or proposed for the National Priorities List (NPL), which the EPA considers the highest priority for cleanup.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke said many people he talks to don’t fully understand what Superfund sites are, or their impact on health and the environment.
“If these are the nation’s priority sites for cleanup, we should have a really clear accounting of what they are, where they are, what’s been happening,” Brooke said. “… The reality that I’ve seen is not a whole lot on the ground has changed in terms of public perception and accountability and awareness of what’s going on.”
Between 1991 and 2000, the EPA finished cleanups at an average of 71 Superfund sites per year. In 2020, cleanup was completed at only 10 sites.
Each Superfund site is supposed to go through a similar process: The EPA tests for hazardous materials and attempts to find the “potentially responsible party” — often a manufacturing facility, mine or military installation.
The EPA then creates and enacts a plan to clean up or contain the pollutants, often with the help of the responsible parties and state or local environmental management agencies. If the facility that caused the contamination isn’t willing to fund these fixes, the EPA can issue orders and penalties to force compliance.
After finishing its cleanup plan, the EPA then monitors Superfund sites to make sure they continue to stay safe. Eventually, an uncontaminated Superfund site can be removed from the NPL and sometimes redeveloped.
ROADBLOCKS TO A CLEAN ENVIRONMENT
There are success stories within the Superfund program. At 452 sites, the cleanup has been successful enough to be removed from the NPL. That includes three in Alabama: the Mowbray Engineering Co. site in Greenville, the Perdido Groundwater Contamination site and the Redwing Carriers Inc. site in Saraland.
At the Anniston PCB site, despite the brutal effects she’s seen in her community, Carter said the EPA has been excellent at communicating information and responding to residents’ concerns.
“We worked with EPA pretty good,” she said.
Pam Scully, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the Anniston PCB site, said there was a lot of distrust in the beginning toward the EPA, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and Solutia, the company that owns the Monsanto site. It took years to build a better relationship.
Gayle Macolly, Solutia’s remediation manager for the PCB site, says most of Anniston and the surrounding towns have her phone number. While the company holds public meetings to talk about major parts of the cleanup process, she said she often gets personal calls from residents concerned about their own properties.
“We have good synergy between EPA and ourselves because we both concentrate on progress, even though we’re on opposite sides of the line, so to speak,” Macolly said.
However, the program doesn’t always seem sufficient to meet the needs it was designed for.
Carter, though she lauds the communication efforts, believes the entire area around the Anniston PCB site should have its soil treated and removed, rather than testing individual properties for contamination.
“It’s hard to think that my property is contaminated and yours next door is not,” she said.
In North Birmingham, Powell feels the same way.
“Digging up two feet of soil and putting two feet back to replace it, that isn’t gonna get it,” he said. “… I just don’t see what they’ve done that tallies up.”
At the American Brass Superfund site in Henry County, the EPA found out two years ago that its groundwater treatment system was not working as well as expected to lower levels of PCBs, pesticides, metals, ammonia and other pollutants.
The 2020 study proposed a new treatment plan that would cost $8.3 million, shared by the EPA and the state. Despite having this new option available, the EPA has chosen not to enact it. EPA Region 4 spokesperson Melba Table did not give specifics on why this decision was made.
“At this time, the EPA has not asked the State for its position on an amended remedy for the Site and there are no plans to pursue one,” she said via email.
Pollution cleanup is also a problem of time. Anyone living near a Superfund site obviously wants an immediate fix, but some cleanup methods, like certain groundwater treatments, take years before they are fully effective.
At the Redstone Arsenal Superfund site, near Huntsville, the U.S. Army is cleaning up soil and groundwater contaminated with military explosives, metals, pesticides, PAHs and other toxic chemicals. According to Clint Howard, the branch chief for environmental restoration, cleanup work will be going on for at least another decade.
Actually reaching safe levels in the soil and water will take an unknown amount of time after that, he said.
During those years, sometimes the project loses its urgency with the surrounding community. In Anniston, Carter said very few of her neighbors bother to show up to the Community Advisory Group meetings anymore.
“The longer the project goes on, the more interest wanes,” Scully said.
“This pollution happened so long ago when they first were commercially manufacturing PCBs, so I think a lot of people don’t realize that it’s still very much a problem,” Overton said.
Sometimes, the obstacles in the way of Superfund cleanups aren’t logistical, but political.
Superfund has suffered from persistent underfunding, leading to a backlog of sites waiting for cleanup. A 2021 study found that the program’s budget appropriations declined by an average of $54 million per year since 1999.
Between 1991 and 2000, the EPA finished cleanups at an average of 71 Superfund sites per year. In 2020, cleanup was completed at only 10 sites.
“The law has been purposefully bankrupted at this point,” Tennessee Riverkeeper David Whiteside said.
Superfund received a boost at the end of 2021, when the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $3.5 billion in extra funding over the next five years specifically for Superfund site cleanups.
About $1 billion of that new funding has been allocated to 49 backlogged Superfund sites, located in 24 states and territories. None of the Alabama sites have been recipients of this new funding so far.
Table said the “vast majority” of the $3.5 billion will go toward NPL sites that are ready to begin cleanup project construction.
“The sites that have received Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding so far have been ready to receive funding for construction and there are no other sources of funding available,” Table said via email.
State-level politics also come into play. Lawrence County resident Brenda Hampton said she and other activists have tried with both current Gov. Kay Ivey and former Gov. Robert Bentley to support class-action lawsuits and stronger restrictions around industrial dumping in the Tennessee River, with tepid responses at best.
Alabama’s environmental regulation is primarily managed through ADEM, which environmentalists across the state have criticized for years over its approach to industry. Brooke said there is a “very real lack of oversight from the state” on whether facilities are actually safely handling toxic materials.
“They see their roles as environmental managers of pollution in the context of an economy that is welcoming, dependent on industries that are polluting,” Brooke said.
The Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) and EPA have both faulted ADEM’s most recent air-quality monitoring program as inadequate.
The Alabama Environmental Management Commission (AEMC), which oversees ADEM, resisted the EPA’s proposal to add the 35th Avenue Superfund site to the National Priorities List in 2014, even though it meets all the criteria.
In 2018, three people, including a state representative and a coke-manufacturing company executive, were convicted in a bribery scheme to oppose listing the Birmingham site on the NPL.
“Because these polluters have very expensive lobbyists and the people don’t, it’s difficult to enforce the Superfund laws in Alabama and Tennessee and the South at this point,” Whiteside said.
As the 2018 bribery scandal showed, corporations that don’t want to share the responsibility and price tag of a Superfund cleanup can be a major source of delays.
“They do everything they can to prevent cleaning up these chemicals,” Whiteside said.
Monsanto knew as early as the 1960s that the PCBs it was discharging into creeks and dumping into open landfills near Anniston were disastrously toxic. The area didn’t become a Superfund site until 1999.
“You felt like these people have just lied and raped and misguided us for so long,” Carter said.
In Perdido, a train derailment in 1965 left nearby homes with unsafe levels of benzene in their drinking water for nearly two decades, until the site was added to the NPL in 1983. The railroad’s settlement included cleaning up the water supply and connecting a new water source, as well as payouts to the affected homeowners. Some received up to $30,000. Others received as little as $200.
In Anniston, the residents won class-action settlements in 2001 and 2003 that averaged $9,000 per adult and $2,000 per child. The community health clinic funded by one of the settlements closed in 2017, though Macolly said Solutia continues to give money to several economic development, educational and charitable initiatives in the area.
Carter said she and many of her neighbors believe they should have received more, both for individuals and for community redevelopment.
“It really didn’t give us as a community any real satisfaction out of the things being done,” she said.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Superfund sites are a snapshot of Alabama’s major pollution in the 20th century. But what about the 21st?
Manufacturing, mining and other polluting industries continue to call Alabama home. According to environmental activists, there are plenty of sites that could become the Superfund site of tomorrow.
Existing Superfund locations could be found to have more pollution, or new pollution, in the future. Around the 35th Avenue site in Birmingham, industrial plants and railroads are still active every day, and residents continue to worry about air quality.
“Some days, I sit on my porch and, I tell you, I think there’s snow out there because there’s so much dust,” Brown said.
“You felt like these people have just lied and raped and misguided us for so long.”Shirley Carter, Anniston resident
One of those factories, Bluestone Coke, shut down in late 2021 because of Clean Air Act violations. Michael Hansen, executive director of the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, said this shutdown has improved North Birmingham’s air pollution, but it’s unknown if Bluestone will try to restart its operations.
Bluestone Coke did not respond to Southern Science’s request for comment.
If that plant does begin operations again, Hansen said air pollution in local neighborhoods will likely get worse again.
“You’re gonna have different chemicals always falling down,” Brown said, noting the several other factories emitting fumes daily within a few miles of her neighborhood.
Superfund sites are also vulnerable to climate change. The increasing intensity of weather events like hurricanes, flash floods and wildfires create greater risks for polluting chemicals to escape into the water or the air.
Table said the EPA does factor in the likely impact of climate change when planning its cleanup actions. In 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that 60% of Superfund sites in the U.S., including 11 in Alabama, were vulnerable to these natural disasters.
Ask environmentalists about the industrial pollution sites that worry them, and most of the answers aren’t Superfund sites.
“There’s just industry up and down the state,” Allen said.
Coal ash, the byproduct of coal-fired power plants, is one of the top priorities for the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) and other water-conservation groups. Coal ash is stored in ponds and contains pollutants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
According to the ARA, Alabama has 44 coal-ash retention ponds near the state’s rivers and creeks. Mobile Baykeeper Program Coordinator Cassie Bates says the coal-ash pond at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry threatens the Tensaw Delta and the Mobile Bay and River with a catastrophic level of contamination if the storage pond has a major leak or failure.
In July, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Mobile Baykeeper filed suit over the coal-ash storage methods at Plant Barry.
The nonprofit American Rivers named the Mobile River as the third most endangered river in the country in 2022, primarily because of the nearby storage of toxic coal ash. Coosa River ranked fifth, due to pollution from agriculture.
Bates said the Axis Industrial Landfill is another ongoing soil and water pollution concern for the Mobile area.
In Fairfield, west of Birmingham, the community has been concerned for years about air pollution from the U.S. Steel plant. HarbisonWalker is reopening one of its facilities in Fairfield, leading to more outcry from neighbors about contamination.
In Tarrant, another community near Birmingham, Drummond Co. recently settled with the EPA over violations of the Clean Air Act at its ABC Coke facility. As part of the settlement, Drummond agreed to use infrared cameras for two years, in order to find leaking air pollutants.
According to Table, Drummond has submitted three of its four required semi-annual reports to the EPA, and it has found and fixed leaks during that time.
In Decatur, the 3M plant’s production of PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” has been an ecological and health disaster for the Tennessee River and surrounding communities, including Brenda Hampton’s home in Lawrence County.
The 3M plant “is significantly contaminated and most likely should be a Superfund site,” according to Tennessee Riverkeeper David Whiteside.
The EPA has recently released changes to its rules about forever chemicals.
Read more in our companion piece on PFAS chemicals and the 3M site.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke says more attention is needed on all sorts of contaminants: coal ash, mines, landfills, chemical manufacturers and wastewater treatment. “Until there’s a major paradigm shift in the political long view of pollution,” he said, he doesn’t expect to see stricter enforcement of clean air, water and soil standards.
WHERE ARE ALABAMA’S SUPERFUND SITES?
There are 17 active or former Superfund sites in Alabama. Read on to find out more about the pollutants found at each site, the causes of the contamination and the cleanup progress. Links below will take you to the EPA’s webpage for each Superfund site, where more details can be found. If you want to learn more about the health effects of a particular chemical, check out the Centers for Disease Control ToxFAQs site.
Superfund Site: 35th Avenue
Location: Birmingham, Jefferson County
Pollutants of Concern: Benzo(a)pyrene and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic and lead
Pollution Source: Industrial sites around North Birmingham, including coke plants, metalwork and asphalt plants. Contaminated materials from these sites leached into the surrounding soil, which was then used as fill dirt on residential properties. PAH contaminants have also impacted the air quality.
Declared Superfund Site in: 2011. Due to its high contamination level, the 35th Avenue Site has been proposed for inclusion on the National Priorities List, but the state has opposed this listing. EPA on-scene coordinator Subash Patel said although the site is not on the NPL, the soil testing and removal program at 35th Avenue has met the same standards as NPL sites.
Progress Update: The EPA extended the boundaries of the Superfund site twice in 2021 to include around 130 additional homes in the Fairmont area. As of late July, Patel said around 70 of those newly added properties had been sampled and 16 would require soil cleanup, about a dozen of which had been completed. The entire site includes 2,100 residential properties, of which around 2,030 have had soil samples done. Patel said 669 properties had elevated levels of arsenic, lead or PAHs, and 643 of those have had their soil cleaned up so far. He estimated that most of the soil cleanup will be complete by the end of 2022.
Superfund Site: Alabama Army Ammunition Plant
Location: Childersburg, Talladega County
Pollutants of Concern: Metals (including mercury and lead), PAHs (including benzo(a)pyrene), asbestos and other chemicals used in manufacturing explosive materials
Pollution Source: A former explosives manufacturing facility contaminated soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1987 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: Soil cleanup and treatment has been underway since 1994, and the Army has ongoing groundwater monitoring systems. Asbestos was discovered as part of the 2018 five-year review; visible asbestos has been removed, and the EPA has requested additional evaluation for the remaining issues. Part of this Superfund property was given to the city of Childersburg in 2003 for redevelopment.
Superfund Site: Alabama Plating Company
Location: Vincent, Shelby County
Pollutants of Concern: Metals, arsenic and cyanide
Pollution Source: Electroplating activity at the site from the 1950s through the 1980s contaminated the groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 2012 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: In early 2018, the EPA injected nutrients into the groundwater in an attempt to speed up the removal of contaminants and return the water to safe drinking levels. Groundwater use is restricted until this goal is achieved. The EPA also previously performed some soil cleanup and fenced off the area where contaminants still exist in the soil sediments. The property is restricted to commercial, recreational and industrial use, so “unacceptable exposures cannot occur,” according to the EPA.
Superfund Site: American Brass
Location: Headland, Henry County
Pollutants of Concern: Metals, arsenic, ammonia, nitrate, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), P,P’-DDT (a pesticide)
Pollution Source: Brass smelting and foundry work from 1978 to 1992, which released contaminants into the soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1999 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: Cleanup of contaminated soils was completed in 2009. The EPA initially planned to monitor groundwater contamination levels and let natural processes reduce the contamination. The 2019 five-year review of the site, however, showed that these levels had not decreased significantly. A covenant was placed on the site, restricting use of its groundwater, and the EPA completed a new study in June 2020 for more effective solutions to treat the groundwater. The study recommended an onsite groundwater treatment system and the excavation of soils believed to be leaching contaminants into the site’s water; these solutions would cost $8.3 million in total. The state of Alabama would be responsible for the costs of the groundwater treatment system and 10% of the soil excavation ($3.8 million), with the EPA paying for 90% of the soil excavation ($4.5 million). However, the EPA stated in July that “currently, there are no plans to implement” these recommendations, and that the state will continue monitoring groundwater every five years. According to EPA Region 4 spokesperson Melba Table, these recommendations would require the state of Alabama to commit to a cost-sharing plan, which the EPA doesn’t intend to pursue.
Superfund Site: Anniston Army Depot
Location: Anniston, Calhoun County
Pollutants of Concern: Volatile organic compounds (often released by cleaning supplies), metals (including lead, nickel, aluminum and zinc, among others), arsenic and explosives.
Pollution Source: Army activities on the site, including handling and storage of munitions and ordnance, and testing and decommissioning combat vehicles. Both soil and groundwater have been contaminated.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1989 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: The Army oversees the cleanup efforts at this site. Cleanup activities, according to the EPA, include treatment of contaminated groundwater; treatment, replacement, or covering of contaminated soil; and emergency planning in case contaminated groundwater leaves the site. Groundwater on the site is still significantly contaminated, but the Army installed a new system in 2019 that has been significantly more successful in removing VOCs. According to the Anniston Army Depot’s media contact, there is still more testing and remediation work to be done, and it will require a “lengthy” timeframe to complete this work.
Superfund Site: Anniston PCB Site (Monsanto Co.)
Location: Anniston, Calhoun County
Pollutants of Concern: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found in the soil, air and surface and groundwater in Calhoun and Talladega counties, originating from this site. Benzo(a)pyrene, metals, polyphenol-based compounds and other polluting chemicals have also been found in the soil and groundwater.
Pollution Source: The Monsanto Co. plant produced PCBs from 1929 until the 1970s. The plant disposed of its waste, including hazardous materials, in nearby landfills, and rainwater also carried the chemicals into local waterways. Today, the Solutia plant at this location produces other chemical compounds that have included some of these pollutants of concern.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1999. This site is not on the National Priorities List, but the EPA is cleaning it up under the Superfund alternative approach, which uses the NPL cleanup standards. Pam Scully, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the site, said this approach was chosen because Solutia agreed to cooperate with cleanup costs and efforts through a consent decree.
Progress Update: Cleanup has occurred at the plant and its landfills, as well as at residential properties with high levels of contamination. Work to limit the ecological damage to Snow Creek and Choccolocco Creek is still underway. Scully said work on Snow Creek will continue for the next five years. Gayle Macolly, Solutia’s remediation manager, said the company has submitted the results of a feasibility study on cleanup methods for the Choccolocco Creek floodplain to the EPA. A decision is scheduled for 2024, and Scully said that plan will take “anywhere from five to 10 years” to complete. A “no consumption” advisory is in place for any fish caught in these waterways.
Superfund Site: Ciba-Geigy Corp.
Location: McIntosh, Washington County (This site neighbors the Olin Corp. Superfund site)
Pollutants of Concern: DDT and other herbicide and insecticide chemicals, PAHs, arsenic, lead and other byproducts of plastic and industrial chemical manufacturing.
Pollution Source: This facility (also called the McIntosh Plant) produced agricultural and industrial chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides, as well as resin and plastic additives. The waste from plant operations was stored in unlined pits and open landfills, and wastewater flowed into the Tombigbee River. Contamination has been found in the soil, groundwater and sludge.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1984 (currently on National Priorities List)
Progress Update: Cleanup and disposal of contaminated soil and sludge occurred in the 1990s, along with treatment of the groundwater. As of 2008, the EPA decided that excavating the remaining areas contaminated with DDT would be harmful to wildlife. Instead, a sand cover was placed over these areas as a barrier. The BASF Corporation, the primary responsible party for the site, conducted annual inspections of the sand barrier and took fish tissue samples to monitor DDT levels. In May 2021, the EPA found that DDT was still escaping the sand cover, and the concentration of DDT in fish tissue was higher than it had been in 2015 and 2016. BASF Corporation is working with the EPA and ADEM to find new, more effective protections. According to the EPA, this fieldwork will be complete in the fall, and additional cleanup work will occur in summer 2023.
Superfund Site: Interstate Lead Company
Location: Leeds, Jefferson County
Pollutants of Concern: Arsenic, benzene, lead and other metals
Pollution Source: Lead smelting and battery recycling, plus the disposal of waste at several sites surrounding the Interstate Lead facility. In the 1980s, the EPA found that the facility was violating standards for safe handling and disposal of hazardous waste. Contamination has been found in groundwater, surface water and soil.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1986 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: Contaminated soil and hazardous waste have been cleaned up, and restrictions on land use were placed in 2005. As of 2012, the EPA determined that cleanup plans for nearby Dry Creek, the city landfill and a service station in the area were no longer necessary. At the main Interstate Lead facility and its parking lot, the EPA said there is still need for monitoring and improvement of groundwater and soil contamination levels, and a fence on the property needs to be repaired. Some of the groundwater wells on the property have shown decreasing concentration of metals, but others have been unchanged. In 2026, the next five-year review will determine if more cleanup is needed for soil and groundwater. The EPA website currently estimates that this site will be ready for reuse in mid-2024.
Superfund Site: Mowbray Engineering Co.
Location: Greenville, Butler County
Pollutants of Concern: PCBs
Pollution Source: Improper discharge of used oil from electrical transformers.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1983 (deleted from National Priorities List in 1993)
Progress Update: The EPA’s cleanup lasted from 1987 to 1991. The efforts included treatment and disposal of contaminated soil, digging up and disposing of transformers and underground storage tanks, closing an on-site well, diverting surface water from the site and adding new plants on the property. This site was removed from the NPL two years after cleanup was completed, and it was declared ready for reuse in 2012. The most recent EPA review of the site was in 2018, and it found that the past cleanup efforts were still “protective of human health and the environment.” Alabama Power is responsible for inspecting and maintaining the site.
Superfund Site: Olin Corp.
Location: McIntosh, Washington County (This site neighbors the Ciba-Geigy Corp. Superfund site)
Pollutants of Concern: DDT, lead, mercury, arsenic, cyanide, benzenes, and other byproducts of pesticide and industrial chemical production.
Pollution Source: The Olin Corporation has produced several chemical products at this site, including pesticides, caustic soda, chlorine and sodium hypochlorite. These substances contaminated the site’s groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1984 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: In the 1980s, Olin Corp. closed some of its solid waste management units and began treating contaminated groundwater. The company also removed contaminated soil in 1990. Addressing contamination of the groundwater and neighboring Tombigbee River is ongoing. At the Olin site itself, the EPA is reviewing groundwater data and recommendations from a 2020 “optimization review” to see if more cleanup is needed. According to a January 2021 consent decree, Olin and the BASF Corporation are responsible for fieldwork to determine effective cleanup plans for the basin near the river. The EPA stated that sampling of fish, groundwater, surface water and soils began last fall and will be completed later this year. With the oversight of the EPA and ADEM, the plan of action to remove contamination in the basin will be completed in 2023, and construction will follow in 2024. A fishing advisory is also in place, encouraging people to limit consumption of fish caught in this portion of the river.
Superfund Site: Perdido Groundwater Contamination
Location: Perdido, Baldwin County
Pollutants of Concern: Benzene
Pollution Source: A train derailment in 1965 caused chemicals to spill into drainage ditches along State Highway 61. Chemicals entered the groundwater, contaminating the local water supply.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1983 (deleted from the National Priorities List in 2017)
Progress Update: The U.S. National Guard and Seaboard System Railroad provided alternate water supplies for nearby residences in 1983. Groundwater treatment began in 1988. As of May 2017, all of the groundwater monitoring wells at the site had recorded benzene levels below federal drinking water standards (5 parts per billion) for five consecutive years. The site was taken off the National Priorities List and will no longer require five-year reviews by the EPA.
Superfund Site: Redwing Carriers, Inc.
Location: Saraland, Mobile County
Pollutants of Concern: Acetone, arsenic, PAHs, lead, insecticides (including P,P’-DDT), herbicides, plastic additives and solvents.
Pollution Source: Trucking operations on the site contaminated soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: (deleted from the National Priorities List in 2015)
Progress Update: Residents of an apartment complex on the site were permanently relocated in 1997, and the buildings were torn down in 2004. Soil and sludge cleanup was completed in 2008. As of its 2014 review, the Redwing site has met the standards set by the EPA. It was taken off the National Priorities List and will no longer require five-year reviews.
Superfund Site: Stauffer Chemical Co. (Cold Creek Plant)
Location: Bucks, Mobile County (This site neighbors the Stauffer Chemical Co. LeMoyne Plant Superfund site)
Pollutants of Concern: Mercury, volatile organic compounds (VOCs, including pesticides, herbicides and solvents)
Pollution Source: This facility manufactured agricultural chemicals until 2008. From 1966 to 1975, the plant discharged waste into Cold Creek Swamp and clay-lined ponds, contaminating soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1984 (currently on National Priorities List)
Progress Update: The facility was decommissioned in 2010. Groundwater treatment lasted from 1989 to 2014, though the owner of the property (now Syngenta Crop Protection Inc.) continues water sampling. Within Cold Creek Swamp, 17.5 acres of contaminated soil have been covered with an “engineered cap,” and the soil is sampled to make sure the cap is effectively containing the contamination. Soil cleanup and disposal was completed in 2019.
Superfund Site: Stauffer Chemical Co. (LeMoyne Plant)
Location: Axis, Mobile County (This site neighbors the Stauffer Chemical Co. Cold Creek Plant Superfund site)
Pollutants of Concern: Mercury, cyanide, VOCs (including pesticides, herbicides and solvents)
Pollution Source: This facility manufactured hazardous chemicals and discharged waste into an unlined landfill, Cold Creek Swamp and a neighboring pond, contaminating soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1984 (currently on National Priorities List)
Progress Update: Groundwater treatment and monitoring has been underway since 1989 and will continue until contamination falls below acceptable levels. Within Cold Creek Swamp, 17.5 acres of contaminated soil have been covered with an “engineered cap,” and the soil is sampled to make sure the cap is effectively containing the contamination. According to the EPA, the majority of the contamination still present at the two Stauffer sites is at the LeMoyne Plant, and “it is difficult to estimate when the cleanup will be complete.”
Superfund Site: T.H. Agriculture and Nutrition Co.
Location: Montgomery, Montgomery County
Pollutants of Concern: Metals, PAHs, PCBs, arsenic, acetone, benzenes, chloroform, solvents, herbicides, insecticides (including P,P’-DDT) and plastic additives
Pollution Source: The facility’s production of pesticides, herbicides, water treatment products and other industrial chemicals contaminated soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1990 (currently on National Priorities List)
Progress Update: The initial groundwater treatment lasted from 1997 to 2002. Contaminated soil cleanup started in 2002 and included excavation, treatment and replanting of the soil. The site is vacant and there are no plans to redevelop it, according to the EPA website. Since 2014, the EPA has restricted the property to commercial use only and has restricted groundwater use. The EPA stated in July that the groundwater cleanup has been effective but some contaminants still remain above acceptable levels. In early 2022, Elf Atochem (the company responsible for the site), injected groundwater treatment chemicals into the soil, and the results are being monitored every three months.
Superfund Site: Triana / Tennessee River
Location: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (Limestone, Madison and Morgan counties)
Pollutants of Concern: DDT
Pollution Source: Pesticide manufacturing, including DDT, at Redstone Arsenal from 1947 to 1970. The wastewater discharged from the facility contaminated sediment, which then entered the waters within Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1983 (currently on National Priorities List)
Progress Update: In the 1980s, the responsible party, Olin Corp., buried contaminated materials and created structures to divert the Huntsville Spring Branch of the Tennessee River from its channel, to avoid the contaminated soil located there. Groundwater sampling continued until 1997, when samples no longer showed significant contamination. Annual fish tissue sampling occurred through 2015, when the last of the three species monitored (largemouth bass, channel catfish and smallmouth buffalo) reached federal standards for DDT levels. Fish sampling will occur again sometime around 2027, to ensure that contamination has not increased.
Superfund Site: U.S. Army / NASA Redstone Arsenal
Location: Huntsville, Madison County
Pollutants of Concern: Metals, pesticides, PAHs, explosives and solvents
Pollution Source: Production and disposal of toxic materials, munitions, rocketry equipment and other activities on the Army base. These chemicals then entered the soil and groundwater.
Declared Superfund Site in: 1994 (currently on the National Priorities List)
Progress Update: The Army manages cleanup efforts at the site, overseen by the EPA and ADEM. Groundwater treatment and monitoring is ongoing, as is munitions cleanup. According to Clint Howard, the branch chief of environmental restoration at Redstone Arsenal, the Army will put all of its proposed remedies in place for the groundwater and soil cleanup by 2032, but there will be long-term monitoring. As for munitions cleanup, Howard estimated that the cleanup plan of action will be completed by 2065. Neither of these programs has an official “end date,” however, because it may take years of monitoring before the contamination in the soil and water on the site decreases to acceptable levels.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Oct. 3, 2022, with additional information on the Anniston Army Depot Superfund site.
Main article image of industrial plants in Birmingham in 1972, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.