Dianne Towner doesn’t mind if you ask about her illness. The 65-year-old grandmother uses oxygen since recently being diagnosed with chronic pulmonary failure weeks ago. With tubes flowing to her nose and a bulky tank behind her, it’s obvious something is wrong.
“Nobody wants to hear your lungs are in failure, I don’t anyway,” she said, while sitting in the living room of her Eight Mile house. “I asked him how long would I be on oxygen and he said for the rest of my life. I thought he was just kidding. He wasn’t kidding.”
Like many others in the community, Towner’s symptoms started shortly after a tert-butyl mercaptan leak in the neighborhood was discovered by employees of Mobile Gas, now Spire, about a decade ago.
“Mercaptan” is a word that describes a series of chemicals used to odorize natural gas. Gas companies are required by law to add mercaptan, which smells a lot like rotten eggs, to the production of natural gas to make it easier to detect leaks.
“We still have an odor and my nosebleeds are getting even worse than before,” Towner said. “Now, it’s kind of happening a couple times per week. It’s just like a post-nasal drip, but then you get the tissue and it’s blood.”
In addition to the lung problems and the nosebleeds, Towner also complains of a “constant headache.” Those are all symptoms other residents have complained about since the spill. Towner, like others, believes the mercaptan — which is still in the groundwater in the Prichard neighborhood — is to blame.
According to documents from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), in 2008 lightning struck the underground supply line of a mercaptan tank owned at the time by Mobile Gas.
Mobile Gas removed soil around the leak area, but in 2011 residents in Eight Mile began complaining about smelling gas and fearing gas leaks.
Julia Lucy, a board member for the We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, was one of those residents. She said Mobile Gas couldn’t detect any leaks.
“It was utter panic,” she said. “I thought my kids were going to die because I had a gas leak and nobody could catch it.”
It was on patrols related to the gas leak calls where two Mobile Gas employees found the source of the odor, Spire contract attorney Edgar Downing said. Mercaptan from the 2008 leak had seeped into the area groundwater and resurfaced through natural springs, ADEM documents reported.
“Where the groundwater reached the surface as natural springs, the mercaptan was released into the air,” the ADEM report noted. “Residents within approximately a one-mile radius were subjected to the odor. While mercaptan is not listed by federal or state agencies as a toxic substance, the extremely unpleasant odor adversely impacts the quality of life for those subjected to it.”
Since the discovery of mercaptan in the area’s groundwater, Mobile Gas, now Spire, has been working to clean it up through a binding agreement with ADEM, the document states. Yet, the company has never admitted fault.
The work has been ongoing ever since, with Mobile Gas and Spire spending “millions,” Downing said, on land acquisitions as well as a series of pumps, wells and cleaning equipment.
On roughly 75 acres of property behind Gethsemane Cemetery in Eight Mile, the gas company, through an engineering contractor, is using two groundwater treatment systems, 24 recovery wells and about 100 monitoring wells, McFadden Engineering Vice President and Project Manager Brad Newton said during a tour of the facility.
The monitoring wells help the engineers track the groundwater plume, while the recovery wells pump the affected groundwater up to the treatment facilities, he said. The treatment facilities use ozone, or O3, to oxidize, or “destroy,” the mercaptan. The treated water is then discharged through a PVC pipe back into the natural springs.
Twelve wells on each side of the groundwater plume pump the water to the treatment site. At the largest treatment facility, which was the second one built, water is held before being treated with compressed air and pure oxygen, Newton said. The water is then released to a 3,000-gallon holding tank, where it sits for 30 minutes, which is “more than enough time” to allow the ozone to mix with the mercaptan and then “destroy” it, he said. The water is then released back into the springs.
At the largest site, engineers have treated about 90 million gallons of water, Newton said. The system treats about 80 gallons per minute, with a capacity to do around 180 to 200 gallons in the same amount of time, he said.
There has been a gradual decrease in the level of mercaptan in the groundwater captured, Newton said. The ADEM report agrees. During odor patrols in eight locations around the community in 2012, ADEM found strong mercaptan odors of level three and four on a scale of zero to four.
“Effectiveness of the first odor mitigation system resulted in the reduction of detections of odors to a small percentage of what they had been previously and levels dropped to no higher than level two or level three,” the report states. “Since starting up the second treatment system in November 2015, the number of odor detections and their intensity has continued to drop. No odors higher than level two have been observed and those have occurred in only 1 percent of the observations.”
More recently, those patrols have shown no odor at any location, Spire spokeswoman Jenny Gobble wrote in an email. A July 6 ADEM document backs her up. It shows a zero odor index rating at all eight patrolled locations.
However, residents say they can still smell it, especially when it rains. Those residents, like Towner, want the odor gone completely and feel the gas company should be held more responsible.
“Healthwise, I think it’s a little too late for that,” Towner admitted. “What I would like to see done for property owners is for it to be fixed.”
The engineers are planning to be onsite until all the groundwater is cleaned completely, Newton said. There is no timeline for completion, but he said the company was committed to seeing it through.
Eight Mile residents have followed closely the aftermath of a methane gas leak that occured in 2015 in an affluent community in Los Angeles called Porter Ranch. Gas escaped from an underground well at the Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon facility and caused what residents there refer to as a blowout.
While initial concerns referenced an explosion risk from the methane gas, once that dissipated residents began to notice an odor from the mercaptan. While ADEM officials have said the two issues are completely different, a report from California’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the tert-butyl mercaptan involved in the Porter Ranch blowout was the same substance that leaked in Eight Mile.
It quickly became a major concern for California officials, Jarrod DeGonia, a field deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, said. The mercaptan is heavier than the methane and stays closer to the ground. It can, therefore, be pushed more easily by the strong winds the area is known for, DeGonia said.
In fact, DeGonia said the mercaptan odor led residents to complain of symptoms very similar to those suffered by residents of Eight Mile.
“There were thousands of complaints,” DeGonia said. “There were a lot of the same complaints, including skin rashes, headaches and nosebleeds. There was no answer to what caused them.”
The apparent health effects from the odor forced the L.A. County Health Department to call for a voluntary relocation of some 3,000 residents in Porter Ranch, DeGonia said. The gas company — owned by former Mobile Gas parent company Sempra — paid millions for the relocations.
There are also pending lawsuits from the county and city of Los Angeles, as well as a class action suit against the gas company.
The blowout seemed to get a lot of attention in California.
“It was a major issue here,” DeGonia said. “Elected officials and their offices had to take action.”
The state has created a review process based on the incident for all similar facilities and changed the well standards. The state of California is also reviewing the need for some gas facilities and the impact gas facilities might have on surrounding areas, DeGonia said. The county has funded health assessments.
As the field deputy for the San Fernando Valley, DeGonia said he still fields complaints from residents, although most of the 3,000 relocated residents are back in their homes.
Some residents and officials in Eight Mile have wondered what makes their situation different from that of the residents of Porter Ranch.
While he believes socioeconomic differences play a role in the difference in treatment, Prichard City Councilman Lorenzo Martin, who represents Eight Mile, also pointed to the local and state governments, which he said are more accountable to Porter Ranch residents.
“I’m going to say local, state and federal because they had all parties working unilaterally,” Martin said. “Immediately, the local government acted and then the state government. What happened with us is we went and stalled and had no traction from the local government, didn’t have no traction from the county, didn’t have no traction from the state.”
As for the EPA, Martin said the agency took its cues from ADEM because the state agency acted first.
“They told us they could’ve done a lot more if they had been informed first,” he said. “Even in that chain of command it doesn’t favor a municipality to be able to have a better governance of natural gas lines.”
Given the opportunity, some Eight Mile residents, including Towner, have said they would like to relocate, or want to be able to sell their home at a fair price.
In mid-July it was announced that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would investigate a fair housing claim based on the 2008 spill. HUD began collecting data on behalf of 4,500 residents late last month. There is no timeline for the conclusion of the investigation. Meanwhile, Martin said HUD’s presence could bring governments together, which could mean action for residents.
“That was lacking in the authority we had for what we could do,” Martin said. “We could talk individually, but not bring everybody to the table collectively. And by not doing so, you didn’t know the boundaries or the duties of each other.”
Carletta Davis, president of We Matter Eight Mile, said she hopes the investigation could spur relocation, similar to what was seen in California. She believes many residents would take advantage. Once residents are relocated, the site could be disturbed properly and cleaned up.
“We didn’t ask for this to come into our community,” she said. “[The gas company] should be more responsible. People have worked their whole lives to buy this property.”
Towner said she and her husband, Melvin, have had the fleeting idea to sell their house, but don’t think they’d be able to get out of it what it’s worth.
Davis said a doctor told her to move her children out of Eight Mile because of the odor, and she did. She said she had to move back to help take care of her ailing grandmother.
Nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and prolonged illnesses have been a common occurrence in the Davis household since the spill. Her 9-year-old son has suffered nosebleeds and her daughter has had bouts of nausea off and on.
“There’s no doubt it’s the mercaptan,” Davis said.
Davis herself battled a cold for three months that landed her in the hospital twice.
“I’ve never been sick like that before,” she said. “This is just breaking down our systems.”
Lucy’s great-niece had to undergo chemotherapy, even though doctors could not diagnose her.
The We Matter Eight Mile group has collected more than 1,300 health assessments from residents who’ve complained of similar problems. The Mobile County Health Department has given data from its clinics to the University of South Alabama for a study.
Despite the new focus on whether or not the mercaptan has had an impact on residents’ health outcomes, the available information has shown mixed results.
Dr. Stephanie Woods-Crawford, MCHD’s director of environmental health and preparedness, wrote in an email message that results of the USA study, going back to 2005, show improvements in health for the very young.
“The study indicates no evidence of a population health impact but individual situations must be looked at case by case,” she wrote.
Despite the recent study, Alabama Department of Public Health Chief Medical Officer Mary McIntyre stated in a 2017 news release the odor did have an adverse impact on residents.
“These odors may impact residents’ sense of well-being and quality of life,” she wrote. “Mercaptan causes irritation to mucous membranes and has been associated with some of the symptoms reported by the residents of Eight Mile.”
McIntyre went on to state “health assessments alone do not address the question of association or causation.” She added that while some odors are unpleasant they may not be toxic.
Despite whether mercaptan is truly harmful or not, Towner can attest to the chemical’s negative impact on her and her husband’s quality of life. She said they don’t garden like they used to and her daughter and grandchildren don’t visit as much anymore.
“They would come over every Sunday evening after church, but they would be like, ‘What is that?” What do I smell?’” she said. “You know, they used to come and stay a while, but now it’s in and out.”