A local plant has been under fire for a toxic chlorine gas leak on February 15, but now, FOX10 News Investigates has uncovered several other chemical leaks at the facility that have gone unreported.
In fact, documents obtained exclusively by FOX10 News Investigates show 16 other chemical leaks occurred at the Olin Corporation chemical plant just in the month of February alone, all of which, were not reported to the state’s environmental enforcement agency, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).
The documents, which are safety logs kept internally at the facility, also show that at least nine of those unreported leaks were chlorine leaks.
Most of the entries in the logs describe the leaks as “small,” but do not explain what “small” means.
Is that one pound or 10 pounds of chlorine? Or more? We don’t know.
“It's very alarming, I look at some of these, and it appears to be negligence. It is very alarming,” said Lt. Charles Koger, a local McIntosh Police Officer, who got sick with respiratory problems after responding to the February 15 chlorine leak.
Three months after the incident, Koger said he’s feeling better, but he still doesn’t trust Olin.
Some neighbors living across the street from the plant are upset, as well.
"I feel like they show negligence, because they should have reported it, even if it's just a small leak, it's not a big leak, but still, you have residents who should still be aware that something is going on with the plant,” said McIntosh resident Tammie Reed. “That small leak might turn into a big leak."
Technically, companies are not required to report chlorine leaks under 10 pounds to ADEM.
However, ADEM documents show that leaks of any size do bear significance in the agency’s environmental enforcement actions.
In a settlement proposal between ADEM and Olin Corporation, ADEM is taking action against Olin for the big February 15 chlorine leak, in which the company emitted 738 pounds of chlorine gas into the air. The settlement proposal also cites two other smaller leaks that have occurred at Olin in the last two years as violations of Alabama code.
That includes one chlorine leak last August that was less than the reportable quantity of 10 pounds, and chlorine release that happened this March, which was less than one pound.
After listing those small releases, along with the details of the February 15 leak, ADEM wrote in the tentative settlement, "Based on the emails and incident report referenced above, (Olin) violated... ADEM administrative code... by emitting prohibited pollutants into the atmosphere."
Subsequently, the settlement agreement proposes to fine Olin $80,000.
ADEM, a public agency, dodging public comment about environmental enforcement
FOX10 News Investigates reached out to ADEM’s communications director to learn more about the tentative settlement agreement and the unreported leaks, but she declined a recorded interview, and when FOX10 News asked why, she hung up.
FOX10 News also tried to reach out to ADEM’s Director Lance LeFleur, but he still hasn’t returned our call.
FOX10 News has also been in contact with Governor Kay Ivey’s press secretary. She has indicated that the governor would be available to speak about the issue, but has not set a date for that interview yet.
Meanwhile, residents living in McIntosh are angry.
"I think it's a joke, and I think ADEM ought to be ashamed of themselves for fining $80,000, it's not even a drop in the bucket," said McIntosh resident Dr. Fred Thomas.
Thomas made a point. According to Olin’s website, the company raked in more than $800 million in earnings before taxes last year, and the company has forecasted that it will make more than $1 billion dollars in earnings before taxes this year.
Thomas and other residents gathered last week to write complaints to ADEM about the settlement proposal. More than 20 different complaints from community members have since been sent ADEM, residents said.
Even though ADEM hasn't agreed to speak with FOX10 News on camera, the agency has posted the documents we uncovered about the unreported leaks to its online database, called eFile, indicating that the information will be considered in the public comment period for the settlement proposal against Olin.
FOX10 News has asked ADEM if any of the details of the settlement will change due to these chemical leaks we exposed, but we haven’t received a response. We will keep you posted when we do.
Forestry commission releases findings on damaged trees
After the big February 15 chlorine leak, hundreds of pine trees turned brown in the area that Olin said the chlorine cloud had traveled.
The Alabama Forestry Commission tested those trees, and found the pine needles were indeed damaged from external factors, like chemicals, and believe that the damage was not caused by any disease or insect.
That discovery has many locals wondering, if that’s what could happen to the trees, what could happen to their lungs?
"You cannot live in chlorine, chlorine will not let you breathe... Olin needs to relocate the residents in this community, they don't need to go through that,” said Thomas.
Olin Corporation’s response
For months, FOX10 News Investigates has been trying to get an interview with an Olin official, but no one would agree to speak on camera.
Finally, an Olin representative was available for an on-camera interview at a town hall meeting held by the company to explain to local residents how to use a new emergency notification app for their cell phones.
FOX10 News Investigative Reporter Kati Weis spoke with Olin Safety Manager Chuck Whisonant, but he dodged any question that did not pertain to the app.
First Kati asked, “There's been some talk with ADEM, and Olin is coming to a settlement, do you have any comment about that?”
Whisonant responded, “I know you've spoken with people from our organization about those issues, but today, we're here to make sure people can register their phones into the system, and train people on how to use the app."
Then, Kati asked about the unreported leaks, showing Whisonant the safety logs, to which Whisonant responded, “Again, I know you've talked with people from our organization about those issues, but today, we're here to make sure people can register their phones into the system, and train people on how to use the app."
Third, Kati asked, "Have you been looking into any other ways to ensure that the community is safe if in case another event were to occur?”
Whisonant responded with the same answer, “I know you've corresponded with people from our organization about those issues, but again today, we're here to make sure people can register their phones into the system, and train people on how to use the app."
Even though Whisonant didn’t want to give us an answer on camera, the company’s public relations firm sent FOX10 News Investigates a written statement that reads in full:
“Safety and Responsible Care are top priorities at Olin. We constantly evaluate our work on that basis and document every incident, small or large, so we can continue to work safely. Learnings from each incident are shared on an ongoing basis at internal meetings and posted throughout our facility in keeping with our company value of continuous improvement. We make adjustments to our process when needed. In all of these actions, we meet or exceed Federal and State compliance requirements.”
FOX10 News Investigates also asked Whisonant about the app, which is a national system that Olin, and other companies in the McIntosh Industrial Park, are now participating in.
It’s called the CodeRed App, and it notifies mobile users about emergencies in their area, like chemical leaks.
However, Whisonant said that if the company has another chemical leak, it will be up to Olin employees to properly input the emergency information that local app users will receive.
Whisonant said Olin employees have been trained to notify app users correctly, but local residents are wary.
"I really don't trust them, because… it's hard to trust, hard to trust them at this time, when they're saying that they're actually involved, and they're concerned about the community,” said Reed. “They wasn't concerned when all these leaks were carrying on."
If you would like to mail your concerns or complaints to ADEM about this issue, you can read information on how to do that by clicking here.
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