Eight Mile welcomed the opening of an expanded Mobile County Health Department clinic, while residents still complain about symptoms they believe are related to a 2008 Mobile Gas (now Spire) chemical spill.
The clinic expansion and the lingering symptoms are not related, Stephanie Woods-Crawford, MCHD bureau director for environmental health and preparedness, said in a phone interview.
The former Eight Mile clinic, which had been open since 1996, was in a strip mall on property the department didn’t own, she said. The new clinic was simply part of a good opportunity for MCHD.
“It’s something we had been working on for three years,” she said. “It gives us an opportunity to provide better care and service to the community.”
As for the impact of the chemical spill on residents — that of a natural gas additive known as mercaptan — Woods-Crawford said there are many more questions than answers. Studies on the effects of mercaptan to date show nothing significant, Woods-Crawford said, and a study commissioned by MCHD and undertaken by the University of South Alabama has not been completed.
“We did commission a study based on the claims,” she said. “The data is still being vetted. We’ve been working on this since last year.”
Carletta Davis, president of We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, believes information from this study would be helpful. Nevertheless, she said the community is still suffering.
“I get messages every day,” Davis said. “Residents really want the health department to step up and find out what this is doing to our bodies and our children’s bodies.”
Residents are still complaining of nosebleeds and other issues Davis believes are related to the mercaptan exposure. The odor, especially since Hurricane Nate in September, is still a problem.
“We’re still smelling it every day,” Davis said.
Earlier this year, 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 a 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 that a contributing factor 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.”
Woods-Crawford said she believes the residents are having symptoms that can be attributed to mercaptan exposure, but those same symptoms can be caused by a number of ailments. She said it’s hard to pinpoint with any certainty what the true cause could be.
Mobile Gas, now Spire, under the direction of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, has installed a series of pumps to treat both the groundwater and surface water in the affected areas using ozone.
Jenny Gobble, a spokeswoman for Spire, directed Lagniappe to MCHD and Dr. Bernard Eichold.
During a phone interview during the first week of December, Davis said she was headed to Montgomery to testify about the issue to a reporter with the United Nations as part of a study on poverty in the South. The United Nations press office did not return a call seeking comment.