Real-life stories underscore urgency of Alcoa battle

by Keith Barber

William Houston Hammonds died in August 2008 of anaplastic T-cell lymphoma. He was only 50 years old. In the days that followed, Hammonds’ wife, Helen, sifted through the full spectrum of emotions that typically accompany the loss of a loved one.

The K’bler-Ross model aligns the stages of grief in the following order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. At the moment, Helen Hammonds remains in the second stage due to her discovery that her husband’s fatal cancer can be traced back to environmental contamination of Badin Lake by aluminum giant Alcoa.

After her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma, Helen said she asked their oncologist what might have caused his cancer.

“Why Wouldn’t it be a Win for any corporation to be a good corporate citizen?”

“She said, ‘It was nothing that you did,’” Helen recalled. “‘This type of mutation is caused by a type of environmental toxin.’” Through her own research, Helen discovered a link between her husband’s symptoms and exposure to PCBs. Houston’s blood tests revealed the PCBs in his blood had four specific cogeners, which act like fingerprints to help environmental scientists identify sources of PCB contamination.

Helen heard that fishing advisories had been posted at Badin Lake due to PCB contamination near the Alcoa’s Badin Works aluminum smelter facility, which closed in 2007. Helen said she and her husband fished Badin Lake for years and frequently ate their day’s catch.

Helen then learned of the Yadkin River Coalition, a group of citizens, politicians and environmentalists opposed to Alcoa’s efforts to seize another 50 years of control over a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that includes Badin Lake. Helen, a Davidson

County resident, then wrote to her state senator, Stan Bingham, who introduced her to NC Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (D-Cabarrus).

Hartsell compared Helen’s husband’s blood tests to the information gathered during an environmental study conducted by Professor John Rodgers of Clemson University last year. Rodgers’ findings connected PCB contamination found in fish and soil samples taken from Badin Lake to Alcoa’s aluminum smelting operation.

“You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when they said they were the exact same PCBs with the same cogeners — the same identification — as the ones at Badin Lake that belong to Alcoa,” Helen said. “So am I angry? Oh Lord yes, I’m angry because my husband clawed for every breath. He fought hard and he lost.”

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich introduced Hammonds and her story to the public during a press conference at Wake Forest University on June 29. Brockovich said heartbreaking stories like the Hammonds’ are growing at an alarming rate.

“I am currently trying to quantify 23,000 legitimate e-mails that I’ve gotten on potential environmental disasters just within the US alone,” said Brockovich, whose real-life story provided the basis for the 2000 Academy Award-winning film Erin Brockovich. “I’m starting to dot all these sites and the dots are getting pretty scary.”

The thousands of dots that cover Brockovich’s map are the direct result of “industry that’s run amok,” she said.

Brockovich advocates a new brand of capitalism where morality supersedes profits. It’s an approach to business that will ultimately add to a company’s bottom line.

“Why wouldn’t it be a win for any corporation to be a good corporate citizen?” Brockovich asked. “To be a good neighbor to the state of North Carolina and its citizens and anywhere else they operate in the world because people like to patronize and give back to corporations that do right by them.”

Until Alcoa does right by the citizens of North Carolina, it’s the responsibility of concerned citizens to speak up and speak out to hold the aluminum-maker accountable, Brockovich said.

“It will be up to us to keep them on that ethical path that we can maybe effectively to begin to make some change,” she said.

Unless citizens get actively involved, the future of our environment and in turn, our species, appears very dim.

“We and the environment, we’re one and the same,” Brockovich said. “This natural world of ours is what sustains us, and we’re destroying it and therefore, we’re destroying ourselves.”

Helen Hammonds said she can’t bring her husband back but she can fight to hold Alcoa accountable and force the company to clean up the PCBs in Badin Lake.

But so much damage has already been done. Hammonds worries daily if she and her family will contract the same cancer as her husband.

“Am I going to die of the same thing?” she asked. “What about my kids? What about other people’s children that have eaten fish?”