In 2011 residents of the small Alabama town of Eight Mile began to notice a strong smell of what they thought was gas in their neighborhoods. The smell caused health effects including nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing and rashes. Health officials determined a small plant in the town was causing the issues. The plant adds the chemical ‘mercaptan’ to natural gas to give it a rotten egg smell. Mercaptan is added in for safety reasons, so people can smell a gas leak. Exposure to high levels can make residents very sick.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management known as ADEM, contacted the plant operator, Mobile Gas. Mobile Gas claimed they had spilled a small amount of mercaptain in 2008 when lightning hit a feed line, but that the spill was promptly fixed and reported to ADEM. ADEM has no record of the spill being reported. Over a 6 month period in early 2008, the mercaptain tank continually emptied and was refilled. In fact 6,000 gallons of mercaptain was spilled, making the lighting strike story hard to believe.
Residents were not notified in 2008. No action was taken until 2012 when ADEM ordered Mobile Gas to clean up the area’s aquifer which testing showed was heavily polluted with mecaptan and other chemicals. The area’s soil and air was also contaminated. While Mobile Gas did finally begin to attempt to clean the spill, four years after they claim the leak occurred, in fact their efforts to clean the aquifer and soil have fallen short. Many natural springs continue to bring mercaptan back to the surface and release the chemical continually into the air.
Residents continue to suffer health effects and the devaluation of their homes. It’s financially impossible for most to leave the area. Quality of life near the spill is severely degraded. Mobile Gas continues to claim they notified authorities and the leak was small and quickly repaired.