‘Alumina dust’ plant emissions concern Goose Creek community

Published: Oct. 9, 2023 at 5:49 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 9, 2023 at 10:14 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is now investigating complaints about a white dust produced by an aluminum plant that has caused complaints and worries for Goose Creek residents.

Alumina dust is a gritty substance people who live near the Mount Holly Century Aluminum Plant say coats vehicles, plants, mailboxes and anything else outside in areas across Goose Creek. It is produced during the smelting process but is not supposed to leave the plant, a problem DHEC is now looking into.

The Mount Holly aluminum smelter has been operating for more than 40 years. But some neighbors say it is recent emissions from the plant that they’re not getting answers about, making them worry about their health.

“It looks like someone has taken baby powder and just shook it all over the cars,” Jackie Davis Pfister, who lives in Goose Creek, says. “It’s gritty. It’s baking into our cars.”

Davis Pfister says this entire process has just been a nightmare and says she’s not the only one who is frustrated. There are multiple posts on Facebook that have garnered hundreds of comments about the same thing.

“It needs to be more addressed than it has been,” Goose Creek resident Marilyn Leegette says. “I wish DHEC would send out some kind of hazard report so people can make themselves educated about what this can do to them.”

DHEC confirmed agents have been to the facility and in the community to gather information as part of their investigation. They say they are working closely with the facility to develop an immediate corrective action plan.

Jonathan Brown, Century Aluminum’s Environmental, Health, and Safety Manager, confirmed that Century believes the emissions may be caused by an unusual failure in the plant’s baghouse. The plant is not 100% sure of the reason for the failure, but are looking at two potential possibilities. One is that a recent change of suppliers for the filters in the baghouse took place, and Century knows that on three occasions a very small portion of the bags failed. The second possibility is recent episodes of high pressure in the bag house.

Brown says Century is working diligently to address these emission issues.

On Monday, Century confirmed they had four “events.” One happened on Sept. 3, two on Sept. 16 and another on Sept. 30. Century says the issue will be fixed by Oct. 17.

But those in the community are worried about their health with some people reporting problems like rashes and difficulty breathing.

“It’s very concerning for me,” Leegette says. “I believe honestly that if there are short-term effects that are showing, there has got to be long-term effects as well.”

“If we could just know what type of air we’re breathing: Is it dangerous to us? I think we just want to know the answer,” Davis Pfister says.

DHEC says alumina dust is not considered a hazardous substance. The particle size of the dust being seen in the community is large and therefore too big to enter human lungs; however, it can still irritate skin, eyes, and the nose, and can be a respiratory irritant after prolonged exposure.

DHEC has also deployed portable air sensors in the area to measure any smaller, breathable particulate matter, called “fine particulate matter.”

DHEC says it’s important to know that the data will represent all particulate matter in the area, not just from a single source or single facility. There can be many different sources of particulate matter emissions within an area. The data from these sensors will help the agency identify any air quality trends in the community.

After an inquiry into the issue, the city of Goose Creek set up a town hall meeting with Century Aluminum and DHEC representatives for Monday at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Mayor Greg Habib will moderate this discussion, which will include questions from attendees. Experts in toxicology, air quality and public health from DHEC will join Century Aluminum leaders who will discuss the issue of excess emissions at the plant, and the plan to fix this problem.

Century says they have set up a website where residents should report their personal situation. They can also call a hotline number at 312-696-3131.