EIGHT MILE, Ala. (WALA) - It's easy to take fresh air for granted. But many residents in Eight Mile tell FOX10 News its been hard to come by.
Since 2011, FOX10 News has reported on complaints about a foul odor in Eight Mile. As each month goes by, health concerns continue to mount. Especially since the Centers for Disease Control, the largest federal public health agency, said it does not know the long-term affects of tert-butyl mercaptan exposure - the chemical Eight Mile residents are dealing with.
FOX10 News is taking a closer look at what's behind done to get rid of the smell and question: Is it enough?
THE FOUL ODOR
Some said it smells like a skunk, sulfur or rotten eggs.
Although a number of people are dealing with it in their homes and yards, FOX10 spent some time with one family who has the source of the smell literally in their backyard.
Debbie and Don Parker said they've been fighting an invisible enemy, and they're not alone. Residents from all over the Eight Mile and Prichard area have reported a bitter smell.
"The smell is very toxic. That's the way I feel. My mom's been throwing up. My girlfriend has been throwing up," said Lawrence Buford.
The residents said they are smelling the chemical called tert-butyl mercaptan. This particular type of mercaptan is added to natural gas lines to detect leaks.
"It makes me nauseated, it nauseates me and I have allergies anyway. It just really messes me up," said Betty Downey.
Residents said the smell has taken them hostage.
"I would rather have a burglar come in my house, because I can call the law or I can get my gun and get him out of here. But this, I couldn't do nothing. Here I am as a daddy, a great grand-daddy and here I am I can't do nothing for my family," said Don Parker.
The University of South Alabama's Dr. James Davis works with the chemical in his lab. He says tert- buytl mercaptan is an essential safety element of the natural gas system.
"It is typically used, rather than other some mercaptans, just because the human nose can detect it at really, really tiny concentrations. Which means that you don't have to add much to a natural gas line in order for an individual to be able to detect a leak in the event there is a leak," said Davis.
MERCAPTAN IN THE GROUNDWATER
However, the Eight Mile community is not dealing with tiny concentrations of mercaptan.
"It's just bubbling up out of the underground. So it migrated under the groundwater. "
In 2012, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM, tested high levels of the chemical in Eight Mile's groundwater. They said it is rising to the surface in at least one location: a pond, just down the street from the Parker's home.
"It's just bubbling up out of the underground. So it migrated under the groundwater, and I guess that was the first place it could find to actually pop up," said Debbie Parker.
WHERE IS THE SMELL COMING FROM?
ADEM has linked the chemical to a multi-million dollar company: Mobile Gas.
Mobile Gas initially denied its operation had anything to do with leaked mercaptan. It did, however, eventually come forward with this explanation: Lighting struck an underground pipeline in 2008, causing a leak and an unknown amount of mercaptan spilled into the soil.
Company officials have not revealed how long it was leaking before it was discovered. Their fix?
"What we decided to do was to dig up the contaminated soil. So we contacted ADEM again, where they advised us on where we could haul that contaminated soil to a landfill," said Mobile Gas Spokesperson Kesshia Davis.
Is it possible mercaptan was spilling into the groundwater before the alleged lighting strike? According to court documents, yes.
In court depositions obtained by FOX10 News, a Mobile Gas employee confirmed between January and June 2008, 6,000 pounds of mercaptan may have leaked into the soil. This is six months before Mobile Gas said lightning caused a leak.
ADEM has ordered Mobile Gas to clean up the mercaptan and put an end to the smell. However, the Parkers said the odor still lingers in the air. They're worried, and so are many others, that it's affecting their health.
"Burning of our eyes. Our throats were really irritated. Headaches, constant headaches, sick on your stomach, nauseated, I threw up. My grandson, he threw up," said Don Parker.
AT THE ROOT OF THE SMELL
So how does a multi-million dollar gas giant address the issue? We first asked Mobile Gas to show us how its abatement system is working, but it declined our request citing a pending lawsuit. Their response said:
"The Court has requested that the attorneys in the litigation not try the cases in the press and that the attorneys not provide opinions about the facts and evidence to the media. The Court also has requested that representatives of Mobile Gas not issue statements to the press opining on the facts and evidence in the cases. In light of the order entered by the Court, it would not be appropriate for Mobile Gas to comment at this time."
You can smell it before you see it. Along the way you'll find buckets of deodorizer attempting to freshen up the air.
A block of land is cleared off and new power lines are up. A buzzing noise lets you know when you are close.
Behind a metal fence there are barrels hooked up to tubes, and those tubes lead all the way down to the water source where ADEM said mercaptan vapors are rising to the surface. The day FOX10 News checked out the system, the was a strong odor of mercaptan present.
WAITING FOR IT TO GO AWAY
"It's still not fixed," said Parker.
The Parkers are not impressed. So we took their concerns to ADEM, the agency charged with holding Mobile Gas accountable.
FOX10: "What would you say to the claims that ADEM is not doing enough?:
"Well, I would say we have been fully engaged in this process since the very beginning. Going back to just identifying the source of odors. Once the odor source was identified, overseeing the installation of the abatement system," said ADEM Spokesperson Scott Hughes.
Hughes said records show the abatement system is working.
We asked to go to the site with an ADEM official to see how they came to their conclusion. Hughes declined the request. He did say, however, the agency will act on citizen's complaints.
"If adjustments need to be made, we can certainly make that happen through working with Mobile Gas," said Hughes.
"What starts that process? Because I think people at this point are saying adjustments do need to be made," asked FOX10.
"Well that process is starting with communication through our department or directly with Mobile Gas," said Hughes.
Hughes added the abatement process may be a lengthy one.
"Unfortunately, the soil and groundwater investigation is a long term process. Again, when you are drilling 80 to 100 feet into the ground that is something that takes time to identify how much soil is contaminated and how much ground water is contaminated, what kind of plan we need to develop to go in and address that contamination. So it's unfortunately, it's not as easy as going out and cleaning it up," said Hughes.
LONG TERM EFFECT UNKNOWN
While the Eight Mile community continues to seek fresher air, they can't help but wonder what the long term affects will be. Doctors have no answers.
"When we tell them our symptoms - they don't know. They don't know. They ain't got no answer for us," said Don and Debbie Parker.
The CDC conducted a health assessment on the Eight Mile Community. It the report it noted the long term health affects associated with exposure to tert butly- mercaptan is unknown.
As the community continues to try to shut out the smell, it is waiting for their gas company to open up and explain to them why more isn't being done.
Meantime, the Parkers have a challenge to the powers that be at Mobile Gas.
"Open just a little bit of this stuff with their family, in their home and let their family see what it does to their family. How angry they would get," said Don Parker.
If you are suffering from the smell in Eight Mile take heed to ADEM's advice. Contact the agency at (334) 271-7700. You can reach Mobile Gas at (251) 476-2738.
Page 8 of the CDC's health assessment reveals it's recommendations for health care practitioners and the Mobile County Health Department.
FOX10 is testing the air quality ourselves. We'll let you know the results.
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