Julia Lucy’s 5-year-old great-niece is being treated with chemotherapy, but she doesn’t have cancer.
In fact, Lucy said her doctors aren’t sure what’s causing the strange blotches to appear on her great-niece’s skin. However, the girl attends school at Indian Springs Elementary School, near where tert-butyl mercaptan spilled in 2008 after lightning struck a Mobile Gas facility in Eight Mile.
Lucy and her family are convinced the presence of the chemical used as an odorant in natural gas is the cause of her great-niece’s frequent trips to the hospital.
In a 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.”
Lucy said it’s obvious the mercaptan is contributing to the symptoms suffered by residents in the area. She said others just need to take the time and look.
“It’s evident … something is going on here,” she said. “This is something we’ve known for a long, long time.”
Lucy said residents were feeling the ill effects before Mobile Gas admitted a leak had occurred in 2012.
“We were having all these symptoms,” she said. “We didn’t pop up after we found out and said we were sick.”
Carletta Davis, president of the We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, said the findings from ADPH should lead to a public call for “direct action.” She added residents near the impacted area should be moved until the effects of the chemical can be determined.
“We had a community meeting in January at Mount Antioch Baptist Church in Whistler,” she said. “Over 100 people said they were impacted there. Until it’s removed from the groundwater and surface water completely, residents need to be moved.”
Mobile Gas, 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.
“What Mobile Gas is doing is not enough,” Davis said. “Residents are encountering mercaptan every day. It will be there for generations.”
Jenny Gobble, a spokeswoman for Mobile Gas parent company Spire Energy, wrote in an email message the utility is confident it handled the situation correctly.
“Since September, when the utility joined the family of Spire companies, our confidence has only increased,” she wrote. “They responded quickly when the odor was first noticed.”
Moving forward, Gobble wrote, Spire will “continue to work with experts to improve the systems that treat the water every day.”