Alabama’s state environmental agency is looking into conditions at a former rubber plant in Fruithurst that local activists have said may be linked to several cases of cancer in nearby residents.
In a letter to a local school principal last week, officials at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said they were conducting an evaluation of the former ProBlend rubber plant to “determine whether a more thorough investigation” or response under federal or state programs is warranted.
“We’re going to do a preliminary investigation,” ADEM spokeswomen Lynn Battle said Tuesday.
The ADEM assessment comes as a group of local residents, led by Fruithurst Elementary School Principal Christy Hiett, continue pushing for research into what appears to be an abnormally high number of cases of cancer around Fruithurst, a town of about 300 people, and the community of Muscadine.
Hiett says four children were diagnosed with leukemia in the area between 2013 and 2017, while four adults received the same diagnosis in 2016 and 2017. To Hiett and other locals, the number of cases is evidence of a “cancer cluster.” The term has been used by researchers with other groupings of cancer patients, sometimes leading them to find a common factor behind a group of cancers.
A 43-page report written by Hiett, and based on research by professors at Auburn, suggests that well water in houses in the community is a common link — and that ProBlend may have something to do with problems in the water. Hiett’s report cites high levels of zinc, lead, chromium and other chemicals reported over the years in ProBlend’s stormwater runoff reports to ADEM as evidence of a possible connection.
The president of the company that now owns ProBlend told The Star on Wednesday that no one from Fruithurst has brought the claims directly to the company.
“We’re aware of the accusations, and we think they’re misstated and misrepresented,” said Ken Bloom, president of Preferred Compounding, which bought the rubber plant in 2006. Bloom said he couldn’t comment further.
Hiett worked with Auburn University researchers to test well water used by some of the local cancer patients. Their results, released last month, showed high levels of radon — a naturally-occuring substance that can cause lung cancer — in some of the wells.
The Auburn researchers in January said the geology of the area put Fruithurst at higher risk for radon, and they urged local residents to get off well water and onto city water. They stopped short of linking any chemical to the leukemia cases.
Hiett said researchers are planning a survey of area residents, including 687 homes, to help find a cause of the cancers.
“We need a 100 percent participation out of the survey,” Hiett said.
‘More art than science’
Epidemiologists say cancer clusters are difficult to prove — and even when there’s agreement a cluster exists, it’s sometimes not traceable to a common source.
“This is more an art than a science, unfortunately,” said Hal Morgenstern, a University of Michigan epidemiologist, who in the 1990s studied cases of a rare cancer, retinoblastoma, in a California near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a rocket testing facility.
That case seemed like a clear cancer cluster, Morgenstern said, but it was still impossible to trace the cancer back to a single pollutant. Epidemiology, he said, necessarily looks at large numbers of people to find causes, while cancer clusters are small.
“When you look for this, you’re doing it in a community where people are saying, ‘When are you going to find it?’” he said.
Clusters have uncovered new knowledge about cancer, said Emily Levitan, chair of the epidemiology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Research into a cluster of cases of the cancer mesothelioma, she said, led to the discovery that asbestos is a carcinogen.
Still, she said, it’s hard to prove that a cluster of cases is more than random.
“It really depends on the details,” she said. “People are sort of ingrained to see patterns.”
The letter also noted that ADEM is working to clean up other sites near the vacant plant, one filled with scrap tires and others it called “unauthorized solid waste dumps.”
‘No sense of urgency’
Last week, before she’d received the letter, Hiett led a reporter down a muddy, vine-choked path to a small, metal building in disrepair. Its crooked door hung open, and the sound of running water could be heard from outside. Inside sat rusting pipes, trash cans full of unknown substances and aging artifacts. The building houses what is left of one of two wells drilled in 1968 that were the source of Fruithurst’s water until 1996, when the town started using water from Heflin. In 2011 Fruithurst switched suppliers again, purchasing water from the Anniston Waterworks and Sewer Board Authority.
Hiett said that the water underground is constantly in motion.
“Having knowledge to know that groundwater moves — it could have a contaminant in one location one day and it not be there the next day because the groundwater has moved,” Hiett said.
The well — an artesian well, meaning natural forces pushes water toward the surface — is about 250 feet from a drainage ditch on the ProBlend property.
The ADEM assessment comes after the area’s state senator, Republican Gerald Dial of Lineville, intervened in the case. Hiett emailed Dial on Feb. 13, saying ADEM had turned a deaf ear to the community’s concerns.
“People are dying and there is no sense of urgency from ADEM,” Hiett wrote in an email that she later provided to The Star.
Dial the same day wrote to ADEM director Lance Lefleur with an all-caps request to “GIVE THIS YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION.” ADEM wrote to Hiett, announcing the assessment of the ProBlend site, on Feb. 14.
Battle, the ADEM spokeswoman, said it’s too early to tell when the results of the assessment will be available.