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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Small town residents sue chemical manufacturer over chlorine gas releases 

At least four times in the past two years, the Olin chemical plant in McIntosh, Alabama has released deadly chlorine gas. Surrounding residents claim the chemical industry’s negligence has influenced their neighborhood’s slow decline.

MCINTOSH, Ala. (CN) — Jerome Haley said he often hears alarms sounding at the Olin plant in McIntosh, Alabama. So often in fact, that he and his neighbors pay little attention to them anymore.

Years ago, Haley said, management at the Olin plant and a neighboring chemical plant, which at the time was owned by Ciba-Geigy, would openly communicate with the neighborhood about alarms, threats, risks and other protocols at the plants. More recently Haley said that cooperation has ended, and the neighborhood only found out about releases of deadly chlorine gas from the Olin plant well after the fact.  

“Nobody ever came down here to tell us, even though some people said they smelled it,” Haley said, adding in one instance a stand of pine trees behind the plant turned from green to brown within 48 hours after one of the releases. “We never really know what’s going on over there anymore.” 

Haley grew up and still lives in the unincorporated neighborhood immediately south of the Olin plant, a neighborhood developed in the 1950s to house workers in McIntosh’s fledgling chemical industry. In the decades afterward, Olin produced chemical products including chlorinated organic pesticides, chlorine, caustic soda and sodium hypochlorite. Next door, the Ciba-Geigy plant synthesized the toxic pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, but later branched out to produce herbicides, insecticides and separate additives for laundry products and the plastics industry. 

For decades, wastewater at both facilities was untreated and dumped into unlined ponds or, for a while, directly into the Tombigbee River, which winds its way southward toward Mobile.  

It remains a working class neighborhood today, with a mix of brick ranch-style houses, cottages with clapboard siding and scattered mobile homes in various states of maintenance, arranged in a maze of unpaved and poorly paved streets. About half the homes here, even if they otherwise appear unwelcoming, feature nearly identical, five-foot tall, vertically oriented “welcome” signs by the front door. 

Haley used to belong to a community group that would get calls from plant managers or community leaders when the alarms sounded, telling them whether it was necessary to shelter in place, evacuate or disregard. Back then, local manufacturers were generous to the community, donating, among other things, a scoreboard for the McIntosh football stadium, a boat ramp to access the Tombigbee River and a tractor to maintain the lawn at the community center.  

But outreach has waned in recent years, particularly after several members of the neighborhood sued Olin in 2003 for mercury pollution.  

“What I heard was their reaction to the first lawsuit was they’ll settle it, but if you do it again we’ll shut down the plant and move the jobs somewhere else,” he said. “It was kind of like ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’”  

Haley said several residents named in the 2003 mercury complaint did indeed settle it, taking a small amount of money with promises to hold Olin harmless of other damages and forfeiting a right to sue Olin in the future. Haley didn’t sign on to the first lawsuit and he’s also not a plaintiff in a pair of complaints filed this week, where 193 plaintiffs are alleging Olin negligently released at least 700 pounds of chlorine gas in at least four instances since 2020.  

“Chlorine gas is extremely dangerous,” the complaints states. “It can kill people, animals and plants. It can cause severe, permanent and life-threatening injuries, including death. It can cause inflammation of the lungs, difficult breathing and/or respiratory failure.” 

Among other allegations, the new lawsuit claims the chlorine releases have affected the plaintiffs’ physical and mental health, property values and quality of life. 

Just last month, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management fined Olin $80,000 for the chlorine releases. In a consent decree, the department also noted the facility has a history of previous violations. Olin did not admit fault, but did disclose that the community was notified of at least one of the four spills, 94 pounds of chlorine gas released on Oct. 16, 2020. Just 12 days later, Olin accidentally released 597 pounds of chlorine without immediately notifying anyone, including the state.

Haley’s father-in-law Oscar Reed corroborated the late October 2020 spill that allegedly killed or bleached the pine trees. 

“I go down to the river almost every day and when I went down there on that day, you could still taste the chlorine in the air,” Reed said. “I could taste it for a couple days after that.”   

Neither men said they believed they have medical conditions tied to emissions from the chemical plants, but their neighborhood has suffered, they said, as the chemical industry has withdrawn support and children have moved away.  

“Olin has slowly been buying up all the property around here for years, and there probably isn’t going to be anyone living here after we all die off,” Haley said. 

Both Olin and the former Ciba-Geigy plant, now owned by BASF, are also Superfund sites. BASF currently produces antioxidants used in the plastics industry and light stabilizers incorporated in food packaging, outdoor furniture, carpet and automotive coatings. 

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joseph McCorquodale, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither Reed nor Haley are listed as plaintiffs, but both said many of their relatives and neighbors are. Reed said he’s pulling for them, but would be surprised if anything substantial came of it.  

“I don’t think anything is going to change, it just about the money,” he said.  

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Categories / Business, Courts, Environment, Health

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