Do You Smell Gas?
After a natural gas pipeline leak in 2008, residents in predominantly black Eight Mile, Alabama, sense strong residual orders, worry about the water, and battle health problems.
It’s an election year, but Lorenzo A. Martin Sr. wasn’t at the Highpoint Baptist Church in Prichard, Alabama back in June to make a campaign speech. The District 1 councilman stood before the crowded sanctuary to talk about mercaptan, and what he believes it has done to the Eight Mile community in Prichard for the last eight years.
Mobile Gas is the company that delivers mercaptan to Prichard as part of the natural gas service it provides to local customers. The company believes it has and is addressing the problem caused by a leak back in 2008.
But Martin, other leaders and experts disagree. So do many residents of Prichard, as evidenced by the 400 people who showed up at Highpoint for the meeting organized by the We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, Inc. In fact, 1,300 residents responded to the health assessments distributed in July by the association. Many of them said that they get headaches and have respiratory issues that they can’t explain. Some also talk about having sore throats and nosebleeds.
The consensus is that mercaptan is to blame for what is happening to the residents of the Eight Mile community. Some even compare their situation to the one in Flint, Mich., more than 1,000 miles north of Prichard. There are similarities: Flint has a 40 percent poverty rate. Nearly 38 percent of Prichard’s residents live in poverty. And both cities are predominantly black.
Councilman Martin believes that the leak almost killed his youngest daughter.
“Her left lung nearly collapsed because of fluid in her chest,” Martin told Message.
The Leak That Set Off Alarm Smells
Natural gas is invisible and odorless. That’s why federal law requires utility companies such as Mobile Gas to add an odorant like mercaptan to it so customers can smell it and detect a leak.
Message contacted Mobile Gas about the mercaptan leak in Prichard but spokeswoman Kesshia Davis said that company officials couldn’t comment due to pending litigation. Instead, she referred Message to the company website.
According to Mobile Gas’s website, lightning struck a line carrying mercaptan to Prichard’s Eight Mile community in 2008. The resulting leak was “promptly reported to ADEM and the soil around the leak (was) removed.”
Additionally, Mobile Gas claims that it has installed 99 groundwater wells to test the groundwater in Eight Mile. The company also says that it has collected and analyzed more than 270 samples of groundwater, 330 soil samples and 600 surface water samples.
The Mobile Gas website also says that the company has installed two different water treatment systems in Eight Mile to eliminate the odor residents blame for their ailments. One treats surface water from a spring that may have been affected. The other treats ground water where Mobile Gas says mercaptan has been detected.
Wilma Subra, president of the Subra Company, believes the company’s efforts may be exacerbating Eight Mile’s problems.
“It’s helping to treat the groundwater,” Subra said about the water treatment systems. “But it’s causing a lot more odors to be released, and a lot of severe odors.”
Subra describes herself as a chemist who specializes in consulting with communities dealing with environmental challenges. She has publicly urged Mobile Gas to take additional measures beyond what it has already done to solve the leak problem. But she, along with Martin and other community leaders, thinks the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) needs to do a better job of working with the company to ensure that the problems in Eight Mile are resolved.
“ADEM does not put boots on the ground,” Martin said. “And they ask for the accused party to do their own clean-up and present to them a process of remediation.”
“We didn’t know the severity of the leak. We didn’t know there was a leak at all.”
Carletta Davis, the president of We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, Incorporated, is also very dissatisfied with ADEM’s response to the Eight Mile leak after Mobile Gas alerted the agency of the problem.
“In 2008, they reported it to ADEM but no one reported back to the community,” Davis told Message. “We were not notified until we started smelling it and complaining.”
Residents began to complain in 2012, she said.
“We didn’t know the severity of the leak,” Davis said. “We didn’t know there was a leak at all.”
Lynn Battle, chief of ADEM’s Office of External Affairs, argues that the agency has been more responsive than residents suggest. According to a summary of the agency’s actions that she provided to Message, ADEM has conducted a full evaluation and knows where soil and groundwater has been contaminated by mercaptan.
The agency says the two water treatment systems installed by Mobile Gas can treat any groundwater that surfaces or can potentially surface via the springs. Both systems are tested regularly, according to ADEM’s summary. ADEM also says that weekly odor surveys are conducted to measure the impact of mercaptan on the Eight Mile community.
But it’s precisely these two things – the water treatment systems and the testing – that are failing the people of Eight Mile, according to Subra. The chemist believes that the smell plaguing the community is being caused by the very wells that are supposed to be mitigating the leak. She said that the emission of odors has increased since they were installed and that ADEM’s own reports show this.
Subra supplied Message with a summary of the data from the ADEM reports which indicate the agency detected the odor on four specific dates in July and August.
“Something happened when they turned on those recovery wells,” Subra said.
So even if it’s possible that mercaptan no longer is tainting the springs, the odor continues to affect the residents of the Eight Mile community. Subra said she has presented her assessment at meetings in July and August. Representatives of Mobile Gas and ADEM were at one or both meetings, she said.
“They all told me it was nothing like when it was bubbling up in the springs,” Subra said.
Her response: But it’s making people ill.
“They got real quiet,” the chemist said. “And they’ve been real quiet ever since.”
A Long Road Ahead For Eight Mile
Eight Mile got its name because it’s eight miles from the Mobile Bay. It’s also known as High Point because it’s one of the highest points in Mobile County. And there’s a third name, the one most relevant to the troubles this community currently is having: Indian Springs.
“We have a multitude of known and unknown underground water sources in the area that travel not only in Prichard but also into Mobile and Mobile County,” Martin said.
The councilman sees this as one more reason that solving Eight Mile’s mercaptan problem should be a high priority. He believes that if mercaptan spreads to these other water sources, people outside of Eight Mile may start to have the same ailments with which the residents of the community have suffered.
Carletta Davis, president of the We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, Incorporated, understands this first hand. She said her children were suffering with headaches, nausea and nose bleeds.
“The doctor just advised us to get out of the area,” said Davis.
So in 2013, she and her family moved. But they returned in 2015 because economic realities.
“We were not financially prepared to move out of our homestead,” she said, referring to the family house in Eight Mile that they had inherited. “Our family has been greatly impacted by this.”
So Davis agrees with Subra. The bottom-line solution is a simple one.
“The responsible party is Mobile Gas,” Subra said. “The regulatory agency is ADEM. And together, they should be working to mitigate the situation.”