Alcoa Creates Tipline For Pollution Whistleblowers

Critics say the creation of the tip line is long-overdue. Alcoa is trying to regain traction after a major setback in its effort to obtain another 50-year license to operate dams on the Yadkin River near Badin.

The old-timers in Badin tell stories about what it was like in the 50s and 60s, when everyone in town worked at Alcoa's aluminum smelter and there weren't strict environmental laws to limit where toxic leftovers could be dumped. On a boat tour of Badin Lake about a year ago, Jimmy Dick pointed to one dump site after another on shore - now overgrown by trees or paved into parking lots. "That piece of property you see to your right out there - that open field - that was a ball park," said Dick, gesturing toward the Badin Lake boat ramp. "To get to the field you had to cross a bridge over a ditch that was full of spent potlining. Nobody's really talked about that. They can say it's not there if they want to, but I helped put it there, so I know it's there." Dick is a Badin native and former Alcoa employee. Spent potlining is one of the most dangerous byproducts of making aluminum, which Alcoa did in Badin until 2002 when the smelter shut down.

Since 1992, Alcoa has been required to closely monitor and address contamination on the smelter site under the supervision of state regulators. Alcoa executive Kevin Anton says the company is confident it has dealt with all the issues, but created the new 24-hour hotline just to be sure.

"We recognize that Alcoa is accountable for the actions of its forefathers, even though when they took those decisions, people didn't know better," says Anton.

Anton says people regularly come forward with suspicions about contamination. He says Alcoa welcomes them. "Last year I think 12 sites were brought to our attention," says Anton. "We investigated all 12 sites, 11 ended up with nothing." The twelfth site had some contamination, which Anton says the company cleaned up and contained.

Environmental activist Dean Naujoks of the Yadkin Riverkeeper believes there is much more contamination than Alcoa has reported. "I know that there's been a problem with people having fears about coming forward," says Naujoks.

He thinks the people most acquainted with Alcoa's old dumping practices are former employees who worry their retirement checks could be jeopardized if they criticize the company.

That's precisely why Alcoa's new tip line is anonymous, says Anton. It will be run by a third-party called EthicsPoint, which specializes in whistleblower hotlines. People can give their name "and help us identify the issue," says Anton. "If they're not comfortable with that, they can do it anonymously and that'll be fine also."

The anonymity of the tip line is good, says Naujoks of the Yadkin Riverkeeper, but he would prefer that state regulators do their own investigation of the smelter site.

A spokeswoman for Department of Environment and Natural Resources says the state doesn't have enough staff and money to do that and must rely on property owners to collect the data, which state officials then review. Naujoks says the system is flawed.

"Alcoa has proven that they cannot be trusted," says Naujoks. "The Division of Water Quality caught them red-handed providing false information."

Naujoks is referring to the Division of Water Quality's recent decision to revoke a key water quality permit from Alcoa because internal company emails showed employees withheld information from the state. Alcoa's Kevin Anton says the company did not mislead the state and will soon show evidence to prove it. Without that water quality certificate, Alcoa cannot receive another 50-year license to continue operating its dams on the Yadkin.

That would be just fine with Governor Bev Perdue and many local officials who want the state to take control of the dams and the electricity they generate.

Story by Julie Rose, WFDD.