The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be investigating a 2008 chemical spill in Eight Mile based on a fair housing complaint, community leaders and elected officials said during a press conference Friday morning.
Mobile Center for Fair Housing Director Teresa Bettis told a gaggle of reporters her group and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition teamed up to file a discrimination complaint with HUD in October of 2017 based on information gathered about the 2008 lightning strike at a Mobile Gas facility that caused a tert-butyl mercaptan leak. Mercaptan is an additive used to odorize natural gas.
Bettis said the complaint was filed on behalf of 4,500 individuals, adding that HUD has since accepted the complaint and will start collecting data last this month.
Those data collection sessions will take place at Highpoint Baptist Church on Lott Road in Eight Mile at 7 p.m., July 17, and July 19.
Carletta Davis, president of We Matter Eight Mile, said urged all impacted residents to attend those events and fill out the necessary damage forms.
“Justice needs to be served,” Prichard Councilman Lorenzo Martin said. “Residents deserve a permanent solution.”
State Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) called the issue with the leak a “catastrophe” and said the news of HUD’s involvement was “huge.”
“This infringes on people’s right to breathe clean air,” she said. “… This is a no-brainer.”
Figures said she hopes the investigation could lead to relocation for those affected by the chemical and its odor.
In a 2017 statement, Dr. Mary McIntyre of the Alabama Department of Public Health acknowledged the odor is having an effect on residents in the community.
“These odors may impact residents’ sense of well-being and quality of life,” she said in the statement. “Mercaptan causes irritation to mucous membranes and has been associated with some of the symptoms reported by the residents of Eight Mile.”
McIntyre stopped short of saying the odor was making residents sick, adding a contributing factor to the smell could be nearby marshland, where “the breakdown of organic materials [plants and animals] … results in the release of sulfur and other gases.”
“Unfortunately, health assessments alone do not address the question of association or causation,” she said in the statement. “Even though unpleasant odors can impact quality of life, not all odors are toxic. We continue to work with the Eight Mile community.”
Dr. Stephanie Woods-Crawford, of the Mobile County Health Department, told reporters the organization is in the midst of participating in a study with the University of South Alabama on the effects the leak has had on Eight Mile residents’ health. She said the study currently involves those who are under the age of 18 because older individuals can be impacted by other environmental factors.
There is no timeline for the conclusion of the investigation and no representatives from HUD were in attendance at the press event. A HUD spokeswoman has not returned a call seeking comment on the investigation.