Stacy Shelton, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 15, 2006
Clare Hindman’s family thought she’d had a stroke. When she spoke at a community meeting in a church, a friend thought she’d been drinking.
On the Hindmans’ kitchen calendar, where they keep track of birthdays, beach vacations and fishing trips, her husband, Earl, wrote “All of June Earl has a feeling of a burn on his right arm. Cannot stand to be touched. Clare’s speech continues to be broken.”
Earl and Clare Hindman, both 65, in south Fulton County maintain a calendar in which they note strong odors and health problems they attribute to a nearby plant that pretreats industrial waste.
The Hindmans, both 65, blame a neighbor in the south Fulton community of Fife. About a half-mile from their home is a plant that pretreats industrial waste before sending it to the county sewers and stores a revolving inventory of hazardous waste. For weeks this summer, an onion-like or rotten garlic smell saturated the community, strong enough to make people gag.
As of Sept. 1, more than 600 people in south Fulton and Fayette counties had complained to state public health officials of symptoms they attribute to the odor: headaches, nausea, burning eyes and sore throats. State epidemiologists are still reviewing surveys taken of people’s health complaints. There’s no timeline for completion, said Michele Hennessey with the state Division of Public Health, and for now there are no plans to conduct physical exams of residents.
“What, or even if, further study occurs will be dependent upon the information,” Hennessey said.
Officials say the smell came from “wash water” that contained traces of a potent pesticide known as ethoprop and sold under the brand name of Mocap. The plant on Spence Road, owned by PSC Recovery Systems, processed about 190,000 gallons of the wash water in June before rejecting a particularly smelly tanker truckload.
The odor, which many residents say started in May, lingered into late August. Now they’re complaining of a different smell, and this time they detect it from government officials who they say haven’t done enough to protect them.
“If bioterrorists had released this stuff in the middle of Buckhead, it would have been covered up with federal agents in 24 hours,” said Earl Hindman, a lifelong south Fulton resident who installs irrigation systems. “There would have been testing.”
The Hindmans said Clare’s neurologist doesn’t believe there is a connection between her slowed speech and the onion odor that wafted through the community. But they’re sure of it.
The wash water contained traces of both the highly toxic ethoprop and propyl mercaptan, which produces the smell and can make people nauseated, but is not poisonous. State and company officials say the residents’ symptoms are consistent with normal reactions to a rancid odor and are not indicators of serious health effects.
Community members fear they were exposed to ethoprop, which can cause the same symptoms as propyl mercaptan but with far more serious health effects, including increased risks of cancer.
Irate residents, who include a retired chemist in Peachtree City, said the state should have done a more thorough air quality test to find out exactly what they breathed in, and should take blood samples now to find out if anyone has been poisoned by the pesticide.
“These are armed molecules ready to do damage to some nervous system or other, and they’re spreading it around,” said the chemist, Lois Speaker. She describes ethoprop, which the wash water contained in trace amounts, as chemically similar to nerve agents used as weapons.
State environmental and health officials have repeatedly said the plant, owned by Houston-based Philip Services Corp., does not pose a health threat to the surrounding community. The Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have also been part of the investigation.
AMVAC, the company that sent the wash water from its facility in Axis, Ala., to Fairburn about 300 miles away, also said there is no reason to expect a health risk occurred because “ethoprop simply does not volatilize or evaporate into the air in any measurable quantity.”
The community isn’t buying any of it. Besides their own health complaints, some residents who had dogs die this summer blame the chemicals. They want the plant shut down, and have been joined in that call by public officials, including Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards and the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. Fayette’s resolution said, “Anything less than permanent closure would continue to constitute a permanent threat to the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of both counties.”
On Aug. 15, the state Environmental Protection Division, which regulates industrial waste processors, found a trace amount of ethoprop in sludge material left in one of the plant’s tanks. That was after plant workers had “done numerous cleaning efforts,” said Morris Azose, PSC’s vice president of environmental affairs.
EPD asked the plant to submit a work plan by an independent chemical engineer to further decontaminate the plant. It was due Wednesday, but PSC asked for more time. The state has given the company until Sept. 20 to turn in the report.
Most of the material processed at the PSC plant is restaurant grease, which the plant bundles in sawdust and sends to a landfill. .
EPD has responded to criticism that they have not policed the plant well by pointing to its temporary closure of the plant and a $100,000 fine levied against PSC in August for the odor and other violations. Although one of the larger fines EPD has ever handed down, it did little to assuage residents
The series of events has led Bob Crutchfield, president and CEO of Christian City, a 500-acre retirement community about four miles from the plant in Union City, to question the safety of his residents.
“I’m concerned about the adequacy of the investigation into the event,” Crutchfield said. “I’m concerned about the level of operation [at the plant] that is ongoing and the scrutiny that it’s receiving, and monitoring it’s receiving, from environmental and health officials. I’m concerned that there’s alleged to be inadequate records, which raises questions about the accuracy of the information we’re receiving today.”
Christian City surveyed residents and employees to find out who might have become sick from the odor. Ninety-four out of about 1,000 residents and employees complained of symptoms ranging from headaches to breathing problems and sore throats, Crutchfield said.
Azose, with PSC, said the community has nothing to fear. The facility handles waste materials in a safe and lawful manner, and the people running it either have degrees in chemical engineering or similar education.
“The fact that there may have been or likely were levels of ethoprop doesn’t mean it was against regulatory guidelines,” Azose said. “The concentrations present were well below all established health levels. … The regulations that govern our business are very well-defined and based on known and well-established health data and that’s how we operate our business.”