David Byrd never got deeply involved in past suits against Monsanto, the company that left toxic polychlorinated biphenyls over much of Anniston.
But now that PCBs have been found at the former site of Cooper Homes — long after cleanup at the site supposedly ended — he’s thinking about lawyering up.
“It doesn’t make any sense why we were suffering for something someone else did,” Byrd said.
Byrd lived at Cooper Homes, one of Anniston’s oldest public housing projects, for 15 years before the 102-unit complex was torn down last year. The demolition was supposed to mark the beginning of a revitalization of western Anniston; the rows of apartments at Cooper would be replaced with less-dense housing and some former residents would move into single-family houses, filling in some of the empty spaces in the area’s residential neighborhoods.
But then the housing authority’s consultants began doing environmental tests on the Cooper site. They found PCBs in the soil around some of the former buildings, along with higher-than-normal levels of metals such as chromium and manganese.
Those contaminants weren’t supposed to be there.
Cooper was one of the sites in Anniston where environmental workers dug up and replaced PCB-contaminated soil after local residents in a 2003 legal settlement against Monsanto. The company made PCBs, a chemical used in electrical and other equipment, for more than half a century in Anniston. The chemical is now known to be connected to cancer and other physical illnesses.
The existence of those chemicals raised plenty of questions. Did the cleanup miss contaminants at the Cooper site? What does that say about other Anniston properties? Those questions are much discussed at Norwood Homes, an Anniston public housing complex where many of the former Cooper residents now live.
“PCB ain’t nothing to play with,” said Everett Graham, a former Cooper resident now at Norwood. “You have to have somebody on up the line to say ‘hey, everything is gone now.’”
Attempts to reach Willie “Sonny” McMahand, director of the housing authority, were unsuccessful last week.
It’s possible the PCBs at Cooper were uncovered by the demolition, but were never exposed while the housing project was occupied. The PCB cleanup replaced soil in the yards of hundreds of homes, but generally left the earth under houses untouched.
Even so, the PCB find could present a problem for housing authority officials seeking financing to rebuild Cooper – a worry city officials have expressed in internal emails. But if that’s a problem for Cooper, will it also be a problem for homeowners in the PCB zone?
Gayle Macolly says remediation teams are on top of that problem. She’s the leaderof the remediation effort at Eastman Chemical, the company that bought the former Monsanto plant and assumed responsibility for the cleanup.
Macolly said Eastman officials try to keep tabs on demolition of local homes so they can test and remediate contamination there. City officials contact Eastman when they tear down a house, she said. (The city can take a number of actions, from mowing a lawn to bulldozing an abandoned home, on properties it deems a nuisance.)
Remediation teams also drive around to each cleaned-up property once a year, to see whether there are changes no one told them about — such as a trailer moved to another part of a lot, potentially exposing PCBs.
Macolly said the company was aware of the demolition of Cooper Homes in 2018, though no one informed them through the usual channels of the change. She said as of Thursday she hadn’t seen the environmental report on the site by the Housing Authority’s consultants.
“They’ve collected data, but I’m still waiting for them to release the data to me,” she said.
Staff writers Serena Bailey, Michaela Hancock and Eric Peterson contributed reporting.