A Tale of Two Leaks: Fixed in California, Ignored in Alabama

Eight years after a mercaptan spill in Eight Mile, its mostly black and working class residents still suffer from respiratory issues, rashes and headaches.

EIGHT MILE, Ala.—Willa Vassar brought a small purple box into her living room and emptied it onto her coffee table. She set out a series of ointments, a white tube of Soolantra, one of Tazorac, a tube of Elidel, and an assortment of pills, all to treat an angry rash that has spread across her face. Lithe and dressed in a black warmup suit, the retiree said she never had rashes before moving to the High Point apartments.

Willa Vassar and her ointments

Willa Vassar has to use a series of ointments and pills to treat a rash she says was caused by a nearby chemical leak. (Photo: Neela Banerjee)

Vassar is convinced her skin is reacting to air pollution from a chemical spill about a half-mile from her home, in a small community outside Mobile. "I've been to three doctors. They're treating me for acne, eczema, but they really don't know," Vassar said one recent morning. "I take two, four, six tablets a day of Benadryl. My skin scales up so bad. I dig and itch. It has kept me from going to church. It's embarrassing."

The chemical in the spill is tert-butyl mercaptan, an odorant mixed with natural gas to help in the detection of leaks. A class of chemicals, mercaptans made national news after a natural gas storage well in Los Angeles started leaking last October, prompting the evacuation of nearly 6,000 households after people complained of the odor and health issues.

The complaints in California echo those of the residents of Eight Mile: respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, rashes and nosebleeds. Further, Sempra Energy is now the parent corporation to the two companies responsible for the California and Alabama accidents, SoCal Gas and Mobile Gas. They are the most prominent examples of long-term residential exposure to mercaptan. But the similarities end there.

In California, federal, state and local authorities responded vigorously to the leak at the Aliso Canyon facility. The national media has covered the disaster extensively. The governor declared a state of emergency, and California is suing SoCal Gas. Los Angeles County has opened an assistance center for affected residents, offering help with everything from financial reimbursement to counseling services, and it has called for regular monitoring of public health. SoCal Gas has already paid more than $50 million to temporarily relocate people who lived near the leak. State and Congressional representatives have demanded investigations. Federal regulators have indicated they are mulling new rules to regulate gas storage wells like Aliso Canyon, whose leak was recently plugged.

Eight Mile locator map

In Alabama, mercaptan leaked from a storage tank into groundwater, after company officials say the tank was hit by lightning. It drew a far milder response. The leak occurred in 2008, but Mobile Gas failed to report its severity to state authorities, according to the news site AL.com. No one was evacuated despite the odor persisting for years and Eight Mile residents reporting continuing health problems. It remains unclear how much mercaptan was released from the leak, and the groundwater and public health in the area are no longer monitored.

The Environmental Protection Agency has deferred to the state of Alabama, because mercaptan is not considered a hazardous material, and the state has said it is satisfied with the remediation Mobile Gas has carried out. Local and Congressional representatives have remained largely silent about the spill. Regulators declined to impose penalties on Mobile Gas for the late reporting and slow pace of cleanup.

To Eight Mile residents and the scientists, lawyers and community organizers who have worked with them, the responses in California and Alabama differ because of who got hurt in each community. The neighborhoods around Aliso Canyon are affluent and largely white, the million-dollar homes belonging to politicians and doctors. The affected area of Eight Mile is mostly black and working class, its trim brick ramblers home to many retirees and people making less than $25,000 a year. Eight Mile residents within a couple of miles of the leak site say they still smell the mercaptan eight years later, and like Vassar, suffer its effects.

Little is known among scientists and regulators about the long-term impact of mercaptan exposure. But Eight Mile has become an unwilling example of long-term mercaptan exposure, a side effect of an environmental accident occurring in a marginalized community.

"City leaders don't know that people are itching, the fact that our eyes water every day, all day long, when it didn't happen in previous years," said Essie Montgomery-Johnson, a 40-year resident of Eight Mile. "I feel if it was in a more white area, in a more influential neighborhood, it would have gotten more attention. It's not fair." Mobile Gas and its parent, Sempra Energy, declined to answer questions about the Eight Mile leak, citing ongoing litigation. (Sempra acquired Mobile Gas several months after the spill.)

Demographics of the Eight Mile leak area

The Alabama Department of Public Health is responsible for ordering evacuations and conducting public health monitoring. Spokesman Arrol Sheehan defended the state's reaction to the leak, denying that the incidents in Alabama and California were comparable.

"No disparities exist since there is no similarity in the events that occurred," Sheehan said in an email. Aliso Canyon's leak "was immediate, clearly visible with immediate risk due to fire shooting in the air. The event in Mobile County was caused by a lightning strike...and was insidious and not visible to anyone. The community itself was not aware that anything had occurred until years later."

Despite Sheehan's contention, there was no fire or explosion risk in California. The odor of mercaptan in October led people to complain to SoCal Gas, which discovered a massive leak of natural gas from a deteriorating storage well.

Detail map of leak site

In Eight Mile, residents smelled strange odors as far back as 2008. Montgomery-Johnson said she and her neighbors noticed a "rotten egg smell" outdoors, especially after dark. They thought it would disappear in time. Instead, the stench grew stronger until in 2010, the neighborhood association began complaining to Mobile Gas. The company responded by saying it had looked into the cause of the odor and found nothing wrong, Montgomery-Johnson said. 

Residents did not know that the odor they detected in 2008 was evidence of an accident in their neighborhood. That June, Mobile Gas employees found that a lightning strike had damaged a pipe connected to a tank that stored mercaptan, causing the chemical to drain into the soil. Court depositions show Mobile Gas estimated that about 200 gallons of mercaptan had escaped. The company hired local contractors to dig up a small section of earth and dispose of it.

From the outset, the cleanup appeared problematic, according to local media reports and legal depositions. Mobile Gas did not report the estimated quantity of the spill to state authorities, a spokesman for the department of Environmental Management told AL.com's Ben Raines in 2013.

The amount leaked also remains under dispute. In a deposition taken during a lawsuit, Mark Miller, Mobile Gas's representative to the cleanup effort, testified that the 500 gallon tank of mercaptan in Eight Mile read "empty" at least four times between January and June 2008. Yet the device that showed how much mercaptan was mixed with stores of natural gas showed only a small amount had been injected into the gas. Typically, Mobile Gas used less than 200 gallons of mercaptan a year at the Eight Mile site.

"The remaining thousands of gallons were 'unaccounted for,'" wrote J. Patrick Courtney III, a lawyer for Eight Mile plaintiffs, in a letter to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). "The mercaptan discharge from the Mobile Gas mercaptan facility was not of short duration or of limited quantity as ADEM has been advised by Mobile Gas. That the clean-up operation was conducted upon that faulty premise explains why the operation fell woefully short of removing pollutants from the environment as the law required."

Mobile Gas responded in court documents that the empty readings were accounting errors. Had such a large spill occurred, the smell would have been far worse, company employees said in legal testimony.

State officials began responding to complaints from Eight Mile residents about odor and health effects in late 2011. In January 2012, Mobile Gas tested a local spring that fed into a pond and found mercaptan in the water. The mercaptan had seeped through the soil, into the groundwater and migrated through local ponds, where it evaporated and produced the rotten-egg smell. The EPA gathered air samples in April 2012 at the request of Alabama regulators. The concentrations showed the presence of mercaptan, though at levels lower than legal exposure limits.

In July 2012, the state public health department asked the Centers for Disease Control to investigate possible health effects from exposure to mercaptan. The researchers interviewed 204 adults who lived within two miles of the leak and found that the closer people lived to the pond, the greater the adverse health effects. Overall, more than one-third of the respondents had sought medical care for their health problems. The study, done with state and county staff, recommended that people keep windows closed, stay indoors and keep their medications handy.

AL.com photo of Eight Mile signs

(Photo: AL.com)

As the stench settled around Eight Mile, residents  sought solutions beyond state and federal authorities' recommendations to wait out the problem. Large town meetings were held in local churches to understand what was happening. But very quickly, many homeowners turned to the lawyers who had posted signs around the community, offering to sue Mobile Gas for damages. The scramble to sue and settle fractured Eight Mile. It also hamstrung efforts to organize a united front that could have demanded greater accountability from Mobile Gas and government authorities, local activists said. 

The lawsuits were based on the premise that the odor is a nuisance. They do not address health risks. Under the terms of the litigation, residents are not permitted to talk about what they had experienced. As a result, the loud complaints about the problems at Eight Mile gradually faded, even if the smell and the health issues didn't.

Teresa Bettis, the former president of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, organized a meeting with lawyers and scientists from Louisiana to figure out next steps the community could take together. But the meeting was cancelled when one of the Eight Mile community leaders backed out because he was suing Mobile Gas, indicating to Bettis that other residents would likely stay home, too.

"Some of them got six figures, but the bulk of the people who sued got maybe $10,000 or $20,000. What can that buy? Nothing. You can't buy a house with that here in Mobile," said Bettis, who is also the executive director of the non-profit Center for Fair Housing.

If people wanted to leave, they would have needed much larger settlements to do so. "I saw it as a fair housing issue. If anyone wanted to sell their house, they wouldn't be able to. Their housing choice had been taken away," she said. "There's all sorts of HUD-funded housing and senior housing in the community, and they can't leave because there's already a shortage of affordable, safe and sanitary housing in Mobile County."

Activists also worried that locals would have no recourse if their health worsened because of mercaptan. Bettis said of her talks with residents:  "I told them, 'You all are getting $10,000. Are you getting any health coverage? You are going to be sick and they will make you sign a waiver and you can't sue them later for this.'"

Bettis and other activists said a sense of fatalism among Eight Mile's residents about Alabama's willingness to help their town prompted them to sue individually, rather than band together to push for broader protection.

One homeowner who settled has struggled with dizziness and a burning feeling in his eyes for years. Speaking anonymously because his settlement prevents him from talking about his case, he said his own financial and health struggles have made it hard for him to consider a unified approach on the mercaptan leak.

"I care for my neighbors and would do what I can to help them but when it comes down to survival, I don't have the time or energy to help them. That's the situation throughout the whole neighborhood," he said. "There are certain things we have control over and there are things we have no power over."

The state health department said the 2012 study constituted the extent of its effort to monitor public health effects from the leak. No water samples have been taken since then. The department of environmental management conducts weekly odor patrols to gauge if the smell of mercaptan is noticeable. In recent weeks, the odor patrol has registered the odor and the agency has gotten complaints from local residents, said spokeswoman Lynn Battle.

Thelma Lett and Nancy Porter

Thelma Lett (left) and Nancy Porter (right) are both wheelchair-bound retirees who say they're in the "red zone" of a 2008 mercaptans spill. (Photo: Neela Banerjee)

A pond glitters outside the High Point apartments on a sunny winter afternoon, and two swans loiter by the far bank. The pond is fed by the springs tainted by the leak and it carries the mercaptan to within yards of people's windows. "We are in the red zone," said Nancy Porter, a first floor resident, sitting in her kitchen with a view of the sparkling water. 

Her friend Thelma Lett was visiting from upstairs. Both are retirees and wheelchair-bound. They don't open their windows, but they think the ventilation system brings the chemical indoors nonetheless. They have respiratory problems and runny eyes almost every day. "You can't go out at night," Lett said. "We were coming home from church and were on Shelton Beach road about three months ago, and the smell was so strong you felt like it was choking you. Oh my goodness, you couldn't stand it."

Like all the others at High Point, Lett and Porter are renters. That means they can't sue under nuisance statutes because those apply to homeowners. Neither can move right now. They would like to see the odor gone for good, but they have no information about anyone addressing the problem.

"I guess they thought we were old and on our way out, so they don't need to pay attention to us," Porter said. "But I don't want my years cut short because of this."

"Why haven't they done anything to help us?" Lett mused. "Because they are the big ones and we are the little ones."

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