Deputy AG: Alcoa official’s answer to legislative committee about epidemiological study ‘not factual’

by Keith Barber

Deputy AG: Alcoa official’s answer to legislative committee about epidemiological study ‘not factual’

Faison Hicks, the special deputy attorney general for the NC Department of Justice, has issued a letter claiming a statement made by an Alcoa official in response to a question from NC Sen. Fletcher Hartsell during a July 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary II committee was “not factual.”

Hicks is leading the state’s effort to petition the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to “recapture” the 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that includes the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project from Alcoa. Hicks e-mailed the letter to Hartsell last week and the senator’s office made the letter public on July 9.

A documentary entitled “The Alcoa Story,” produced by UNC-TV’s Eszter Vajda, was shown to committee members at the beginning of the July 6 meeting regarding alleged PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl contamination of Badin Lake and the Yadkin River by Alcoa’s Badin Works aluminum smelting operation, which operated for more than 90 years before closing in 2007. The committee subpoenaed the film, portions of which aired last week on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Now,” to show to its members before extensive questioning of Alcoa representatives.

After the film screening, Bill O’Rourke, Alcoa’s head of environmental health and safety, made an opening statement before taking questions from committee members.

Sen. Hartsell, the committee chairman, asked O’Rourke: “Do you have the epidemiological documents showing a high incidence of kidney and/or bladder cancer in the employees at the Badin Works compared to the population as a whole?” “We do not,” O’Rourke replied. Hicks referred to an internal Alcoa document dated July 11, 1996 that was e-mailed to nine Alcoa officials, including O’Rourke. Hicks claims the internal Alcoa document states that an epidemiological study by Alcoa reveals that “people who have worked at Alcoa for one year or less and whose jobs exposed them to high levels of ‘Aliphatic Hydrocarbon[s]’ [coal tar pitch volatiles], the risk (what Alcoa referred to as the “Odds Ratios”) of developing kidney cancer are 3.7 times the normal rate of incidence of kidney cancer in the population as a whole.”

“It is my understanding that coal tar volatiles are discharged into the air at Alcoa’s aluminum smelting plants, and that they were at the old Badin plant before Alcoa closed it down,” Hicks adds.

The documents further reveal that there was much discussion among Alcoa officials about how to present the study’s findings to its employees, says Hicks.

“I believe that this document clearly shows that Mr. O’Rourke’s answer to your question on Tuesday during your Committee meeting… was not factual,” Hicks writes. “That is, this Alcoa document clearly shows that Alcoa does, in fact, possess epidemiological studies or reports indicating that there is or was a higherthan-normal risk of kidney cancer for Alcoa’s employees or former employees. Indeed, this document specifically refers to a ‘kidney cancer study.’” Hicks’ letter also cites a 68-page internal Alcoa document regarding a different study conducted by two University of Pittsburgh researchers on the link between kidney cancer and the exposure to hydrocarbons at Alcoa plants. The document states that Alcoa possessed one or more studies that indicated a higher-than-normal risk of kidney cancer for Alcoa’s employees or former employees — 58 percent higher to be exact, writes Hicks.

“This 58 [percent] higher-than-normal risk factor strikes me as being in sharp contrast to Mr. O’Rourke’s statement to your committee on Tuesday that: ‘At many of our plants, it’s more dangerous to drive to work than it is to work there,’” Hicks states in the letter.

Alcoa representatives did not immediately return phone calls for this story.

Roger Dick, a community activist from Badin, has been an outspoken opponent of Alcoa’s efforts to seize another 50 years of control over a 38-mile span of the Yadkin River.

He helped create the Yadkin River Coalition, which opposes Alcoa’s re-licensing bid. Dick said when he read Hicks’ e-mail to Sen. Hartsell, he was “taken aback.”

“Based on what I’m reading, O’Rourke perjured himself in front of the committee,” Dick said.

Dick said the documents clearly reveal that O’Rourke was aware of epidemiological studies regarding the health risks to Alcoa employees, including those at its Badin Works plant, yet he denied the existence of these studies to a state Senate committee.

“It’s pretty appalling,” Dick said. “I think it’s much worse than we thought.”

Dick also addressed O’Rourke’s comments about an environmental study conducted by Clemson University professor John Rodgers in 2009.

During his opening statement, O’Rourke addressed claims made in “The Alcoa Story,” including the findings of Rodgers’ study of soil and fish tissue samples collected in Badin Lake.

“The movie claimed that the PCBs in Badin Lake can be directly tied back to Alcoa’s operations,” O’Rourke said to the committee. “But Dr. John [Rodgers], the Clemson professor who was cited and quoted in the movie who supposedly made that connection, backed off from his claims when he was under oath.”

Kevin Lowery, a spokesman for Alcoa, said Rodgers gave a deposition as part of a lawsuit involving Alcoa. Lowery said the company was not at liberty release the transcript of Rodgers’ statement.

In his 2009 study, Rodgers found a close match between PCB congeners found in the sediments of Badin Lake and fish tissue samples taken from the lake. Congeners act as fingerprints for PCBs that allow environmental scientists to determine their source. Rodgers found a relationship between the PCBs used at Alcoa’s Badin Works facility and the PCBs found in fish and soil samples taken from the lake. Dick characterized O’Rourke’s statement as a twisting of the facts.

“What [Rodgers] is saying is the congeners there in Badin Lake are identical to Alcoa’s,” said Dick.”Who else could’ve put them there?” Dick said the PCBs Rodgers discovered are consistent with those found in transformer oil, which is often used for high voltage capacitors like those found in the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project.

“You look around, the rest of that place is wilderness,” Dick said. “There’s a big aluminum plant sitting in the middle of wilderness…. These are their PCBs, this is their fingerprint.”

Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin riverkeeper, cited internal Alcoa documents that reveal the company’s knowledge the Badin Works plant emitted arsenic and cyanide into the environment.

Naujoks said a review of the facts regarding Alcoa’s environmental stewardship reveals a disturbing pattern of corporate behavior.

“They’ve known about cyanide and arsenic poisoning since the 1970s, they lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee about internal testing that they had done — that’s pretty cut and dry,” Naujoks said. “They’ve killed people and no one seems to be able to hold them accountable for that.”

Opponents of Alcoa did receive some good news recently. State lawmakers adopted legislation to create the Uwharrie Resources Commission, a replacement for the Yadkin River Trust, on July 9. The commission could take control of the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project and its four dams if FERC rules against Alcoa’s bid to get a new 50-year license.

Dick said the formation of the commission is a step in the right direction, but many battles lie ahead for the group of citizens, business owners and elected officials known as the Yadkin River Coalition.

The coalition has mounted a legal challenge to the 401 water quality certification issued by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR. The case is still pending in the courts. And Gov. Beverly Perdue is still petitioning FERC to allow North Carolina to become the first state to ever recapture a license issued by the federal agency on behalf of the public interest.

“Unregulated monopoly of this resource by Alcoa for another 50 years is un-American and illegal and cannot be tolerated,” Dick wrote in a letter to coalition members. “It is our future; it is our children’s heritage.”