How natural gas poisoned a poor Alabama town


It’s been going on for decades — poor towns in the Deep South, often with a predominantly black population — getting dumped on, whether it’s by Big Oil or by chemical plants or by toxic-waste disposal firms. Many of my earliest cases as an environmental lawyer were in these off-the-beaten track places such as Brookhaven, Mississippi or Martha, Kentucky, where oil companies littered properties with radioactive dust or dumped hazardous sludge into streams or open, unlined pits. I’d love to report that these kind of environmental injustices against poor rural communities were a thing of the past. But they’re not. The legacy lives on in places such as the Standard Heights section of Baton Rouge, where a community largely comprised of African Americans is under assault from the hazardous air pollution of a giant ExxonMobil refinery.

This fall, a Los Angeles Times reporter did an in-depth report from another battered outpost, a place called Eight Mile, Alabama — a largely black community in the industrialized corridor surrounding Mobile, near the Gulf Coast. For eight remarkable years, residents of Eight Mile have struggled to cope with the acrid smell of rotting eggs and a host of unexplained illnesses that many believe result from an underground natural-gas pipeline spill.

Here’s some of the Times report:

Residents say there have been no relocations to hotels or rented homes. No transfers to schools out of harm’s way. No U.S. Cabinet members swooping in to investigate. No national media hordes.

“Because we don’t have the financial wherewithal to put pressure on these people, they simply turn their heads,” said Eight Mile resident Carletta Davis, one of hundreds of people suing Mobile Gas Service Corp. over the leak of the chemical mercaptan. “Our children are sick…. It’s absolutely an outrage.”

Ironically, the chemical that appears to be making people sick, mercaptan, is added to normally odor-free natural gas to warn people when a leak occurs. It seems this so-called “warning” is hurting folks, not helping them.  Some of the details are horrifying:

The EPA report said that exposure to methyl mercaptan even when not at those extreme levels can depress the central nervous system and affect respiratory function. Signs of exposure can include mucous membrane irritation, headache, dizziness, staggering gait, nausea and vomiting.

Markell Williams was just 3 years old when a powerful chemical oozed into the soil and water less than a mile from his home. By age 5, he was having seizures. His mother, Raquel Williams, 33, blames the chemical’s pungent smell that permeates the air in their community. Whenever the odor would grow strong — and it can hit with a blast that sometimes forces people to run for cover — it seemed to trigger Markell’s seizures with growing intensity and frequency, his mother said. Over the last year, the seizures have become so frequent that Markell, now 11, has missed months of school.

“This year, he’s been hospitalized five times because his seizures didn’t get any better,” said Raquel Williams as she sat next to his hospital bed in September. More than 1,300 residents have filled out health assessment questionnaires describing symptoms such as nosebleeds, respiratory distress, nausea, vomiting, seizures, vision problems and hypertension.

There’s an ironic twist to this article. It seems the Times — one of the nation’s most influential news organizations — only learned about the crisis in Eight Mile because there had been a somewhat similar natural gas leak earlier this year near an affluent and mostly white area in Southern California known as Aliso Canyon. Residents in this California suburb are now worried about their exposure to mercaptan — an issue that has already sparked a flurry of news coverage and intense interest from many of that state’s most powerful politicians. (Indeed, I published several posts here about the Aliso Canyon situation.)

The differing reactions to similar incidents in the two communities — one wealthy and one poor — is a dramatic example of the kind of environmental injustice that is still rampant across the United States. It all makes one wonder — how many other Eight Miles are out there, ignored by the politicians and the press?

Read more about the mercaptan poisoning of Eight Mile, Alabama, from the Los Angeles Times:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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