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What To Do When The Unpredictable Comes To Your Town
Is Your Community Suddenly Experiencing a Strange Water or Environmental Crisis? Just Look At What's Happening in South Carolina.
I received some emails this week from folks who live in Goose Creek, South Carolina.
If you haven’t heard about what’s going on there residents say they are concerned about a powder-like substance coating their vehicles, gardens, and outdoor furniture. Some say it has been happening for at least a month, but the volume has increased in recent days.
One neighbor who lives in the Persimmon Hill community described the substance as being “sandy, gritty, and dust-like being emitted and traveling by air,” as reported in the local channel News 2.
So, what’s with the white dust? Apparently, it’s coming from the Century Aluminum Plant, a global metals and mining company with operations in the U.S., Iceland, Jamaica, and the Netherlands.
Century’s smelter in Mt. Holly, which employs about 460 people, is “the most advanced plant of its kind in the U.S., a pacesetter in production efficiency, energy utilization and environmental protection,” according to the company’s website.
“The white dust is Alumina dust, which is produced during the smelting process,” Goose Creek Mayor Greg Habib said in a statement posted on October 2. “Alumina dust is not supposed to leave the plant. In fact, the retention of Alumina is an important part of the plant’s ability to make more aluminum.”
In that statement, Habib said he shared the community’s concerns and that he has reached out to the Governor’s Office to make sure DHEC (South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control) is doing everything it can to assist.
“DHEC has in fact been notified, and I am expecting an update from DHEC soon,” he wrote.
DHEC is reportedly now in the area with air quality testing measures to further look into air quality issues.
But why hasn’t the company been in touch with the community from Day 1? It’s a lack of transparency that I know frustrates residents the most. I’d also be curious to hear from workers inside the plant about what conditions are like.
One of the most troubling statements from the mayor was this:
To be clear, Century assures us that they are working diligently to address these emission issues. I do not doubt this. The Mt. Holly aluminum smelter has been in operation for more than 40 years. They employ hundreds of our friends and neighbors and have a tremendous impact on our local economy. In my 40 years of living here, I do not recall another issue related to emissions from the plant.
In this country, we let businesses tell us that they are working on it, while innocent people are exposed to a potential cocktail of chemicals. That’s not right. It’s never been okay. Yes, I know jobs are important but not at the expense of community health. So many crises begin with a private company saying they are “handling it” and then it gets out of hand.
So what to do when a crisis hits?
First, know that whatever is happening is not your fault. A sad reality is that pollution happens everywhere.
In the U.S., about 111 million Americans, or 35 percent of the population, live in counties with unhealthy air, which makes them more susceptible to health issues like lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes.
Since the Industrial Revolution, factories and manufacturers have used freshwater sources as a convenient spot to dump their waste. Add on top of that waste from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater runoff, and you can see why we’ve got so many substances floating around in our water systems. We add all these chemicals to the environment without knowing a whole lot about them.
That pollution also seeps into our groundwater, which makes up about a third of our drinking water. A 2015 sampling by the USGS found that 1 of every 5 groundwater samples from parts of aquifers used for drinking water contained a contaminant harmful to human health. I would imagine that number is even higher today.
Accidents happen. They can devastate a town. It can be frightening to confront that reality, particularly when your water is brown or there’s a mysterious white powder covering your car.
Let’s talk more about what you can do as a citizen.
Report, Report, Report
Please make sure everyone in your neighborhood reports what's going on. That's the first step.
In the case of South Carolina, report to DHEC. They need to know your concerns. If I lived in that town, I’d be calling the mayor’s office. I would ask if any of the dust has been found at playgrounds. I would show up to the next town meeting. I would strongly request a town hall to discuss the issue.
Talk To Your Neighbors
People love to complain about a crisis but what’s better is to get organized. You’ve gotta talk to your neighbors and friends, which I know sounds like a strange concept in our digital world.
Start fact-finding and asking questions together. Use the power of different perspectives to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to speak up and check in with one another. It’s not always easy because people may have different opinions, but this step can be a real game changer.
Think about the impact of one person going to a city council meeting versus one hundred people showing up. We have strength in numbers, and if each person commits to talking to a neighbor or posting on their social media page, you can easily grow your impact.
Don’t forget your neighbors are also the folks who are water operators, union leaders, scientists, local politicians, etc. Don’t wait for a crisis to get to know these folks. Talk to them now and learn more about your community. It’s so much easier to call your friend in a crisis than a stranger.
Gather Evidence & Protect Yourself
A picture is worth a 1,000 words. Take photos of what’s going on. Citizen-based science and sampling is real. There’s even a Citizen Science Association.
If you feel comfortable, use gloves and gather samples of the dust on your car. Those samples could be useful to a toxicologist or scientist that may want to study what’s happening. If you have a water crisis, use a mason jar to collect samples of water.
If you feel unsafe about drinking the water, don’t do it. Get bottled water. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s better than drinking contaminated water. In East Palestine, Ohio, people left their homes when they felt unsafe. I know not everyone has those resources, but do what you can to protect yourself. Go stay with friends or family out of town, if you can. When it comes to dangerous contaminates, less exposure is always best.
Don’t Let Anyone Bully You
I’ll never forget the day I was standing in the hot sun collecting samples of water and doing field research in California when a PG&E lackey came up to me and said, “You’re not a doctor. Do you even have a college degree? You have no right to comment on green water.”
I realized at that moment how much intimidation is used in these kinds of cases. The more I kept pursuing leads and talking to people, the more clues I found. The closer I got to the truth, the more PG&E tried to bully me. Companies may try to bully you too. The “big guys” don’t want you to discover the truth, so they will try to make you feel small, bad, or wrong. I looked right back at him and told him, “I didn’t know I needed all that to be a human.”
Don’t let anyone convince you that brown water is good to drink or that white dust everywhere is normal.
Your most basic right is to protect your health and well-being. Many of the issues we face today have huge implications for both our bodies and our environment. You’re not too small to stand up to these challenges. You are much mightier than you can imagine.
Vote, Vote, Vote
Ask any community going through a crisis about the importance of local government. They know.
Remember that your mayor, your county commissioners, and every member on your city council has been voted in by your community to represent the people, so they are there to listen to your opinions.
I recommend going to local meetings to see how it all works. You might be surprised how much you will learn about what’s really happening in your town.
Make sure that the next time an election comes around, the candidates know that you, their constituents, are paying attention to their votes and messages on the environment.
I have yet to see any national debate where candidates are asked how they would respond to an environmental crisis. I think local elected officials should be asked this question too.
Look at who is introducing solution-oriented legislation. Find out who is even talking about these issues. Are they talking about infrastructure and water and how to regulate industry? These issues matter.
The next time there’s an election, see where your local and national candidates stand on water and environmental issues. And don’t forget to tell your friends and neighbors to vote too.
Is it fair that everyday citizens have to deal with this stuff so often? Absolutely not. But this is the world we live in. Everyone has a voice, and everyone can get involved.
What advice do you have from your own experience? Or what questions do you have about getting involved? Let us know in the comments below.
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