When attorneys Stephen Tunstall and Henry Seawell started to hear from parents of young children experiencing health issues they believed are related to a tert-butyl mercaptan leak in Eight Mile, they thought they had isolated incidents. When they got together to compare notes, they realized it could be a bigger issue.
“We realized they had all given us slightly different versions of the same thing,” Tunstall said. “They complained of skin issues, breathing issues, migraines and nausea. We agreed we’d look into this.”
It was about this time the attorneys discovered the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD) had completed a study on the health impacts of the mercaptan spill. Seawell said he was excited to see the results, but was told by a MCHD attorney the report wasn’t available.
“He said they had it on a disk, but could no longer find the disk,” Seawell confirmed. “They had lost it essentially.”
Seawell said he was told no electronic copy existed. Lagniappe was able to obtain an electronic copy of the report by emailing MCHD Public Information Officer Mark Bryant. Bryant said he gives it to anyone who asks. But when MCHD refused to give the lawyers a copy, Tunstall said they were very interested in it.
“We definitely wanted to see this study now,” he said.
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.
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 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.
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.
There has been a gradual decrease in the level of mercaptan in the groundwater captured, according to an ADEM report. 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, an ADEM report confirms.
In August of 2017, the University of South Alabama’s (USA) Center for Strategic Health Innovation released a study commissioned by MCHD that reviewed “diagnostic data” provided by MCHD “related to clinical encounters at its Eight Mile location.”
Despite MCHD promoting it as a 10-year review, USA said in the study’s abstract that MCHD provided “patient encounter” data for calendar years 2005, 2010 and 2015. The study resulted in the review of 5,825 “distinct patients” ages 0 to 15.
In total, the study found 1,776 cases of acute upper respiratory infections, which was the largest diagnosis. However, the study shows the amount of acute upper respiratory infections decreased from 507 in 2010 to 333 in 2015. While a number of diagnoses decreased during this same time period, the amount of patients diagnosed with cough increased from 17 in 2010 to 36 in 2015.
The number of total visits was the largest in 2010 at about 43 percent of all visits, while 2015 only had 35 percent.
In a 2018 statement about the study, MCHD said it showed improvements in the health of the very young.
“The study indicates no evidence of a population health impact, but individual situations must be looked at on [a] case by case [basis],” the statement reads. “Some additional years will be studied.”
Issues with the study
Tunstall, Seawell and community activists in Eight Mile question the results of the study mainly because of the years MCHD had USA study.
Tunstall and Seawell question the use of the years 2005, 2010 and 2015 because it ignores years where the mercaptan smell was worse. MCHD has previously reported that the reports of the leak began to surface in 2011 and ADEM reports indicate the smell was at its peak in 2012. Those years were not part of the study, Tunstall argues. Most of the smell had dissipated by 2014, according to an ADEM report, and would’ve been even more scarce by 2015, the final year of the review, he said.
Tunstall said he and Seawell are just trying to get answers for parents.
“I don’t understand why the health department would deceive parents and use this to reassure them,” he said. “I’m not trying to cast aspersions, I would like them to answer our questions.”
In a statement, MCHD Executive Director of the Bureau for Prevention and Wellness Dr. Stephanie Woods-Crawford defended the study.
“MCHD and researchers from the University of South Alabama conducted the study to compare health outcomes of the Eight Mile residents living in the affected area with residents of an area not impacted by the mercaptan leak,” she said. “The intent was to compare types of medical-seeking practices sought by residents living within zone 1 and zone 2 of the Beaver Pond Spring area at three time points (prior, during and after): 2005, 2010 and 2015. The data collected from that study doesn’t prove that the increases in any diagnosis means it is due to mercaptan. Specific testing for mercaptan or diagnosis codes for mercaptan does not exist, at this time.”
She added that the increases in some diagnoses could be due to an active cold and flu season.
“The USA data report provided an opportunity for us to see if there was anything unusual that popped out,” she said in the statement. “The increases in the top diagnosis could be due to flu or seasonal environmental issues within our community, but please understand that I nor anyone else could specifically say it is due to mercaptan [because it’s not conclusive].”
Carletta Davis, president of the We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, said she also questions the results of the study and the years used.
“When I was briefed on the study … I noticed they studied years where the smell wasn’t at its height,” she said. “I asked them to look at those years.”
Davis said her group has taken the position that the study was incomplete.
“I think it’s flawed and I think it’s incomplete,” she said. “We don’t feel it’s comprehensive.”
The We Matter Eight Mile group had residents complete more than 1,300 health assessments, but MCHD did not take those into account when providing information for the study, she said.
“Not everyone goes to the Health Department when they’re sick,” she said. “They didn’t use the health assessments we did.”
Despite the study’s findings, residents like Kim Tucker and her son are still feeling the impact of the spill years after state officials have said the smell is gone. Tucker said she and her son both experience nose bleeds on a regular basis that they didn’t experience before 2011.
“It really scared me,” she said. “It has to be [mercaptan].”
In addition to the nose bleeds, Tucker and her son deal regularly with itchy eyes. She said she’s been dealing with nausea and has been in and out of the hospital for years. Doctors, she said, have not been able to diagnose a problem.
“I don’t have a way to leave,” she said of Eight Mile, her home since 1999. “If I had the money I’d get out of here.”
While at an event in Eight Mile on Monday morning, Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner said mercaptan is only one of the issues impacting the health of residents that the government should be concerned with. He said issues like climate change and truck exhaust should also be a focus.
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