Carolina Solite’s neighbors thought the toxic fumes were bad enough. Then came toxic neglect from the state.
Originally published in IndyWeek.
THE FARM WHERE JOANN ALMOND grew up looks like a slice of Americana. Children play in a pasture amid goats and horses. Rabbits and doves live in cages, while a handful of chickens run free. The land swoops and rises, the back fields dotted with white. “This is the first time these fields have been planted with cotton in years and years,” says the 63-year-old retired school bus driver. “Last time, I had to pick it by hand.” Now Almond’s brother lives on the land, in a modest pink house built with timber from the family’s woods. Further back sits the old home place, abandoned, with asbestos shingles and a tin roof. Between the two buildings rises a giant oak.
The landscape, in next-door Stanly County, would make for an idyllic place to live, except for a few glaring problems. First there’s the noise, a ker-CHUNK, ker-CHUNK, ker-CHUNK that persists 24 hours a day. Then there’s the acrid, greasy industrial odor. At night, neighbors say, they can shine a floodlight toward the sound and scent, and see dark smoke rising. “It just ruins everything,” says Almond’s sister-in-law Ellen Burris.
As Almond walks through the woods behind the family farm, the noise gets louder and the fumes grow strong enough to make the eyes burn. The fence makes a 90-degree turn, and then the source comes into view: Carolina Solite, a 45-year-old factory built to manufacture a lightweight building material used in highway construction and cinder blocks. “No admittance. Authorized personnel only,” says one of many signs warning visitors away. Immense cylindrical kilns, horizontal and low to the ground, recede from the fence line, one behind another. Piles of shale dominate one side of the property. An old CSX train car sits parked, with two railroad crossing signs nearby. Tall stacks spew brown smoke. Gray haze envelops the whole complex.
If this were just a run-of-the-mill factory, it wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside rural Stanly County. But Carolina Solite plays a larger role for North Carolina: It is the state’s largest burner of hazardous waste, the only plant to which industries and other institutions can send their leftover solvents, ink thinners, paints and waste oils. Over the years, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State have sent wastes to Solite; so has the US Marine Corps’ New River Air Station. North Carolina industries like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Broyhill Furniture, Fieldcrest Cannon and Burlington Industries have all shipped their toxic debris to Aquadale, a community of churches, an elementary school, one other factory, and a crisscross of farmhouses on 55-mph roads.
The neighbors, many of whom have lived in Aquadale their whole lives, fear they’re being poisoned.
“I think they’re making people sick in the neighborhood,” says 69-year-old Mary Ferguson, who runs a furniture store in nearby Albemarle. “Every time I look up and see that smoke, hear that noise, see those trucks tearing up these roads, it makes me sick in my heart.”
Now, an Indyweek investigation has turned up evidence that Solite’s neighbors might indeed be getting unhealthy exposures of cancer-causing pollutants like arsenic. What’s more, the investigation suggests that the state’s health and environmental agencies have treated North Carolina’s largest toxic-waste combustor with extraordinary gentleness. Rather than enforcing permit provisions and levying tough penalties, the state has tolerated repeated misbehavior from the company with little slaps on the corporate wrist.
Government regulators say they’re doing the best they can. “Certainly, it’s not been a good compliance history,” says Keith Overcash, DAQ’s deputy director. “But also realize that they’ve been more highly scrutinized than the normal facility has been. There’s been a lot of violations. We’ve taken enforcement action on most of those violations.”
But privately, some state employees admit that Solite is getting overly friendly treatment. Industry consultants, grassroots activists and environmental experts have all expressed frustration with how the state has dealt with its largest hazardous-waste-burning facility.
“Over a number of years, the state regulatory agencies have done a terrible job of making this company comply with the laws and regulations, so the company got away with a lot of pollution,” says environmental consultant Joel Hirschhorn, a former senior staffer at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. “There’s no doubt, based on the data, that Solite has been a highly polluting industry. I think the surrounding community may have been seriously harmed.”
THE QUESTION OF HOW to dispose of hazardous waste has caused the state’s leaders more than their share of headaches—both technological and political—for the past 20 years. For much of that time, officials were counting on a company called ThermalKem to build an incinerator that would destroy paint sludge, laboratory chemicals, household pesticides and textile wastewater. But ThermalKem ran into massive opposition from communities across North Carolina, fueled by the firm’s violations elsewhere and fears that incineration might prove unsafe. In 1993 the legislature abolished the Governor’s Waste Management Board, the agency charged with promoting the incinerator.
Waste-producing industries were not completely out of luck when ThermalKem’s plans went up in flames. Those businesses knew that for a small fee, Solite (along with a sister company) would take their chemical waste, which it would then “recycle” by burning it as fuel to manufacture building materials. Solite was so eager for the toxic material that it was importing the stuff from as far as Pennsylvania and Alabama.
“If you have any spare waste, send it our way,” company spokesperson Shirley Worsham told the Governor’s Waste Management Board in 1988. It was open knowledge among businesses. But for six years after Solite began burning hazardous waste, word had not filtered down to the plant’s neighbors in Aquadale, a predominantly white working-class community in the poorest sector of Stanly County.
Then came an article in the Winston-Salem Journal just after Christmas 1988, which explained that Solite was burning 62 million pounds of waste a year, most from outside North Carolina. This explained some things for local residents. “We could see the big tankers going in, and we smelled odd odors, and people complained about their throats burning, but we didn’t know why,” says Joann Almond, who now heads the community effort to hold Solite accountable for its pollution.
Aquadale resident L.C. Smith, a mechanic supervisor for the N.C. Department of Transportation, had noticed too. He remembers hunting deer about three-quarters of a mile from Solite, and being driven away by the fumes. “It smelled just like battery acid in my car. My eyes got to burning. It got to burning my face. I went home and took a shower.” But, as health experts were learning, the real problems with Solite didn’t lie in the day-to-day health problems neighbors were experiencing. Something more ominous was going on.
In January 1990, a group of government environmental and health experts gathered to discuss the dangers posed by Solite. Kenneth Rudo, a state toxicologist, reported that he had found three metals in the dust that had accumulated next to the kilns and smokestacks. “There was dust all over the place,” he now recalls. “There were piles of dust from cracks in the kilns. The place was a mess.”
The cancer risk posed by this “mess” was staggering. Arsenic presented a risk to workers of 1 in 60,000; cadmium’s odds were 1 in 10,000; and chromium posed a risk of 1 in 400. Normally, a one-in-a-million risk is considered safe. “This risk would be…considerably higher than the level our section considers safe for human health,” Rudo wrote in a follow-up memo two days after that meeting.
John Freeman, the retired chief of the state’s environmental epidemiology section, remembers the meeting as “rather testy.” The regulators in charge of clean air and water, particularly from the Mooresville regional office, were resistant to the notion that the cancer threat required swift and serious action. The resistance continued for the next year. “We had trouble to get [them] to move, to look into things, to respond,” says Freeman. To the health experts, that was perplexing. “I never understood why it was so difficult to convince them something had to be done,” says Rudo. “We had the data.”
A year later, the epidemiology section released a 20-page report, authored by Rudo and epidemiologist Gregory Smith, that offered a more comprehensive look at the health problems Solite posed. In the short term, Solite’s neighbors were suffering from “respiratory distress.” The neighbors also faced a “slightly increased lifetime cancer risk” from emissions containing arsenic, cadmium and lead. And there was contamination in wells, groundwater and nearby bodies of water. In the Lower Long Branch, Rudo and Smith wrote, sediment lead levels were “5-10 times higher than [other] significantly contaminated areas.” Some of the data raised questions about whether the water was safe to drink and the fish safe to eat.
The report concluded with 10 recommendations for monitoring and reducing the emissions of arsenic and other pollutants. In a 1991 memo, state health director Ron Levine urged his colleagues to move quickly on the recommendations. “I…would encourage our regulatory officials to do all in their power to hasten the advent of such alterations,” he wrote.
But environmental officials continued their antagonism to those who wanted to clean up Solite. In a handwritten memo later that year, Mooresville regional supervisor Brenda Smith made it clear she had no patience for Solite’s neighbors or their attorney, Mark Finkelstein of Raleigh. “I advised Mr. Finkelstein today…that [our] staff are not available for questions,” she wrote. “We will not be put in the position of being ‘consultant’ for him and his clients regarding Solite.”
More than seven years after Rudo and Smith made their recommendations, most have gone unheeded. Last June, state toxicologist Luanne Williams found that Solite’s neighbors are still at a higher-than-acceptable risk for cancer, and again urged the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to take action. In a recent interview, Williams said that three state agencies are now meeting to decide how to move forward.
But still, nothing has happened. Asked why, DENR assistant secretary Bill Holman simply says, “I don’t know.”
STEPHEN HOLT, ENVIRONMENTAL DIRECTOR for the Virginia-based Solite Corp., calls the Aquadale plant a clean facility that should cause no concern. “For us, being associated with the recovery of energy from waste fuel, it comes with a stigma, the buzz words like ‘hazardous waste,’ and the regulation goes with it,” he says. “The perception is that we pose a lot of threat in our emissions, but the tests don’t conclude that. It’s basically no different from burning waste oil or burning coal.” Holt notes that Solite has installed a “state of the art” structure called a bagfilter, which traps many harmful chemicals before they go out the smokestack. Of the plant’s four kilns, two burn hazardous waste and two burn coal; the waste-burning kilns are connected to the bagfilter.
“There has been no incentive for Solite to clean up their practices. They’ve gotten away with violating state regulations, and saved money doing it.”
But a review of government records shows there’s plenty of reason for concern. Carolina Solite has been racked with problems, both in the Aquadale plant itself—which was built to turn shale into construction material, not to burn dangerous wastes—and with the way Solite operates the facility. The plant has been cited for exceeding sulfur-dioxide emission limits, installing equipment without permits or testing, burning PCB-contaminated waste, poor record-keeping, illegal water discharges, petroleum spills and various other offenses.
“Most of the problems Solite has are not because they burn hazardous waste,” says Sam McClintock, an environmental and computing consultant who has worked for such corporations as Georgia-Pacific, Chrysler and Boeing. “It’s because of poor environmental management. The fact that they burn hazardous waste just adds insult to injury.” McClintock, who is providing pro bono assistance to the Durham-based environmental group NC WARN (Waste Reduction and Awareness Network), says toxic wastes can be burned safely, but only if done with conscientious attention to detail—”something Solite seems incapable of doing.”
Several ex-workers echoed that point in sworn testimony during a lawsuit filed against Solite. They talked about leaks and spills, missing safeguards, broken and jury-rigged equipment, and schemes to deceive government overseers. Willie McEwan, who worked as a driller and kiln operator for eight years, testified that whenever state inspectors visited, “an announcement would be made: ‘Will Quentin Smith please come to the office?'” In fact, there was no Quentin Smith; the name was just a code word. “We knew that the announcement meant to change our normal procedures to procedures that the government was looking for.”
Some state regulators admit that Solite’s “normal procedures” have worn them down. “One thing I do is hold a grudge, even though I shouldn’t,” says Lee Daniel, chief of the Technical Services Section at DENR’s Division of Air Quality. “You try to resist saying, ‘They’re at it again.'” But Daniel adds that Solite has had “a pattern of less-than-stellar maintenance or attention to detail,” which doesn’t surprise him. “A company that’s busting rocks and throwing them in a kiln might not be on the cutting edge of analytical chemistry.”
In fact, state inspectors have found fault with the company lab used to examine the waste Solite burns. “It appears the analytic methods are not being followed properly,” Daniel wrote in a 1996 memo. “The variance from the methods is so great that I am concerned Carolina Solite is not in compliance with their current permit…My staff believes all results from the testing are invalid.”
When state inspectors confronted Solite about its lab techniques during one inspection, company employees grew upset, according to state records. They barred an inspector from observing the lab chemist and accused the state workers of not trusting them. At one point, when an inspector asked about the distilled water the lab used, Solite’s Stephen Holt replied, “Is that a trap question? I can’t believe you asked that.”
Holt maintains that DAQ was overzealous when it came to examining Solite’s labs. “None of the permits required the laboratory to follow certain methods,” he says. He adds that his company tries to cooperate with government regulators. “We’re used to making the inspectors’ visit one that they can get their job done.”
Jessica Bellas, a DAQ environmental engineer, sees it differently. “It seems that the shenanigans at Carolina Solite are continuing,” she wrote in a 1996 memo to her boss, explaining that state inspectors were suddenly barred access to a certain room at the Aquadale plant. “Do you think it is a coincidence that this room is adjacent to the analytical laboratory that we have been investigating?” Bellas also accused Solite of making the inspectors’ jobs more difficult by providing a new type of bathroom facility. “This ‘rest room’ consists of an outdoor area (more specifically, a cliff) where some of the more uninhibited male plant personnel relieve themselves,” she wrote.
These shenanigans—and the more blatant environmental infractions—have never translated into a get-tough attitude toward Solite.
While the lab skirmishes were going on, Solite’s air permit was getting ready to expire. The state drafted a new permit, which was criticized by local residents, environmentalists and even some state employees. “In my opinion, this is the worst permit application and the worst draft permit I have reviewed in 16 years,” wrote Neil Carman, a former inspector with Texas Air Control Board. What’s more, he wrote, the plant “evidently has serious and ongoing non-compliance issues including incineration of PCBs…and probably additional toxic and hazardous substances.” Carman, who now works for the Sierra Club, worried that Solite presents “an imminent threat and endangerment to [the] health of residents.”
All told, 180 people wrote to oppose the permit, favoring stricter standards. Three letter-writers supported the permit: two consultants working for Solite, and the Stanly County Economic Development Commission.
“All procedural requirements have been met in this case,” wrote Rick Shiver, a state employee who conducted a public hearing on the permit and believed it should be issued. It was.
Solite, wanting a more lenient permit, appealed. It took a year for the state and Solite to reach a compromise, and the result was a new permit issued in July 1997.
Then came the bombshell.
A WEEK AFTER THE STATE issued Solite’s most recent air permit, Joann Almond walked into DAQ permitting chief Laura Butler’s office and pointed out an error in the company’s map of its land.
“Laura, I’m not a surveyor, but I do know this map is not right,” she told Butler. “I know where our property boundary line is, and I know this map is not correct.”
Almond’s instincts were on target. Solite’s map showed that it owned 1,500 acres. In reality, it owned 700.
This was more than a technical error: It was a mistake that threw off all the state’s monitoring data. Pollution is measured at a company’s fence line, to determine whether the factory is emitting too much pollution into the surrounding community. When Solite overestimated its land area, it meant the air was being monitored too far from the real boundaries. If the air at its property line was contaminated, there might be no way of knowing.
State regulators were puzzled. “How in the world can a company…make this mistake?” wrote DENR assistant secretary Linda Rimer in an e-mail message to two colleagues. Solite claimed the mapping error was inadvertent, joking that the site must be vexed. “Ancient Indian burial ground disturbed and we’re under a curse, I think,” assistant attorney general Jim Holloway wrote in his notes, paraphrasing a telephone comment from a Solite vice president.
DAQ chief Alan Klimek took the appropriate measure: He revoked Solite’s air permit because it was based on a false map that invalidated the data. But under the law, Solite was allowed to keep running its plant while it appealed the decision. The state and Solite negotiated a settlement, which they reached and signed this past July. (The complete survey didn’t arrive until October.)
This time, it was Solite’s opponents who were vexed. Without a proper map of the property, the state had no idea of the magnitude of Solite’s violation of the state’s air-toxics regulations. Yet state officials were signing an agreement with Solite that would allow the plant to continue operating.
“They had nothing to base their negotiations on,” says McClintock, the industry consultant. “They should have complied with the state’s request for property lines before the state ever agreed to sit down with them. That’s common sense to most of the enforcement officials of the USA.”
Bill Holman, DENR’s assistant secretary, admits that signing an agreement with Solite before a survey was completed was an imperfect solution to the problem. But he says that Solite had tied the department’s hands with the threat of a protracted lawsuit. “Solite was continuing to operate and not address our concerns about toxic air pollution,” he says. “The two basic choices were to settle with Solite, or to continue to litigate. Solite could have probably operated two to three more years before they had a final decision about the permit revocation.”
So DENR decided to settle—even though it lacked the basic information to determine whether Solite was discharging an unhealthful amount of air pollution.
THE JULY SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT allowed Solite to continue operating in violation of state air-pollution regulations for 10 months and pay a fine of only $22,000, in exchange for installing two more bagfilters by January 2000. It also directed Solite to improve the laboratory facilities that measure the waste it burns, and to pay $25,000 for environmental monitoring. An earlier draft of the agreement allowed the state to require Solite to monitor Aquadale’s air quality, but that provision was dropped from the final document.
“It’s one of the loosest settlement agreements ever written,” says a DENR employee who feared retaliation if quoted by name. The document is so loose that, before it was finalized, one of the negotiating partners, NC WARN, walked out of the talks in frustration. “It became very clear that our concerns were being badly subordinated to those of the company,” recalls Jim Warren, WARN’s director. “It would get to a certain point, and Solite’s lead guy would sit back in his chair and say, ‘You can’t make us do it.'”
For example, WARN wanted Solite to reduce its production immediately, so that it could meet the state’s pollution standards without delay. Then, after it installed better pollution-control technology, the company could resume normal production. “They admitted they could come into immediate compliance,” Warren says. “But it would hurt their customers and hurt their business.”
Perhaps most frustrating to Solite’s critics was the $22,000 penalty, a pittance compared to the fines paid in many other states. “This same facility in Indiana would have racked up several million dollars,” says industry consultant McClintock.
Compare Solite’s fine to those the US Environmental Protection Agency has levied against other businesses that burn hazardous waste for fuel. Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical firm, failed to meet emissions standards for particulates and metals; it was assessed $992,000. And the Indiana chemical firm Reilly Industries was socked with a $1.7 million fine for inadequate testing and record keeping, and for feeding its furnace too quickly.
State regulators say that Solite’s small fine, like the settlement agreement itself, kept the issue out of the courtroom. “When we have a large company with a lot of lawyers, they have this legal recourse,” says Jerry Clayton, an engineer with DAQ’s Permitting Section. “You’re trying to get cleaner air. You can take that money and make someone pay a bigger fine, and have it drag out in court, or they can take that money and put it to work getting some controls.”
Some DENR employees have been mystified by this light-handed approach. “Everyone tries to figure out why Solite is getting the treatment they are,” says one. “The thing I have heard repeatedly is that Solite does give campaign contributions.” Indeed, Solite’s then-president, John Roberts, donated $16,000 to Gov. Jim Hunt’s 1992 campaign. The company also hired two of Hunt’s former law partners as its North Carolina attorneys. But there’s no evidence that Hunt has tried to interfere with the government’s handling of Solite. A more plausible explanation is that Solite is an important industry—because it’s the only place in North Carolina where other businesses can send their toxic debris.
“No one ever said that a lot of companies depend on Solite to incinerate their waste, but everyone knew Solite plays that role,” says DENR assistant secretary Holman. “There were a lot of other industries depending on Solite to take their waste. It was one factor in our decision to settle with Solite and try to get controls on their stacks as soon as possible.”
Perhaps the weakest provision in the settlement agreement was one that required Solite to fork over $25,000 for environmental monitoring. Keith Overcash, DAQ’s deputy director, admits the number was chosen randomly. “We didn’t have any idea how much it would cost,” he says. “It was more or less a stab in the dark.”
It turns out that number doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of testing the environment around the Solite plant. In August, Research Triangle Institute offered to study the air, surface water, soil and sediment—for $74,600. Soil testing alone would cost $48,000. Some experts believe thorough monitoring could cost far more.
“Twenty-five thousand dollars is so paltry that every time that figure comes up, I laugh automatically,” says Hirschhorn, the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment staffer. “You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to do first-rate studies. The worst thing in my view is when you see a small token amount of money spent on an investigation. I’d rather have them spend no money than spend a token amount and say they haven’t found anything.”
CRITICISM OF THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT didn’t come only from outsiders. Within the Division of Air Quality, key employees wondered aloud whether their agency was giving the waste burner too much leeway.
The criticism stems back to August 1997, when Solite was still operating with a revoked permit. That month, a smokestack test of one of its coal-burning kilns showed that it was exceeding its permitted hourly limit of particulate (dust) emissions by 7 percent. The same kiln was re-tested eight months later; this time it was 35 percent over the limit. The other coal-burning kiln also failed its dust emissions test. Solite attributes the problem in part to clogs in two particle-separating devices called cyclones, but adds that its own testing was not completely accurate and probably exaggerated the problem.
“Most companies would come to us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem. We failed a stack test. What can we do about it?'” says one DAQ employee. But Solite didn’t do that. Instead it submitted a written report, which sat on a desk for months before anyone had time to review the numbers. Only in March 1998—half a year after the initial tests—did DAQ notice anything awry. Even Solite can’t understand why it took the state so long. “We sent in a summary,” says Stephen Holt. “Someone should have reviewed it within five minutes.”
When the state caught the infraction, nothing was done beyond the cursory issuance of a “notice of violation.” According to the 1997 air permit, the state must require Solite to perform additional tests for toxic metals and the cancer-causing pollutant dioxin whenever the company fails a stack test for particulates. But the state decided this would be an unnecessary financial burden on Solite, since it was already negotiating a settlement requiring it to install two bagfilters that would reduce the emission of metals and dioxin. The first filter should be installed next January, the second a year later.
“Air Quality’s never been real keen on requiring a bunch of testing. Sometimes it’s not worth the price,” says Lee Daniel, the section chief. “If emissions testing were simple and cheap, like dipping water out of the creek, we’d do more of it.” But for a company implementing new pollution controls, expensive tests “can be a sizable fraction of the control costs.”
If Daniel sounds like an apologist for his department, that certainly wasn’t his tone last spring. One month before the state and Solite signed their July 1998 settlement agreement, Daniel fired off a four-page memo that summed up the feelings of many of his colleagues at DAQ. Couched in technical language, the memo warned that the settlement was too easy on a company that “was unable to show compliance with air toxics.”
The chief listed 15 “inadequacies” in the agreement. Among his concerns, he called it “ludicrous” that Solite wasn’t required to test its two coal-burning kilns for metals and dioxin after failing the particulate tests three times. He also criticized the fact that Solite would still be allowed to use kilns with outdated control equipment known as wet scrubbers. “Until it can be demonstrated that [the] scrubbers…are working properly by demonstrating compliance with…metals, particulate and dioxin, neither should be operated.”
Daniel took aim at a paragraph in the settlement agreement requiring Solite to fix or replace the clogged cyclones within 30 days. “Carolina Solite should have fixed these cyclones as soon as they discovered that they were damaged,” he wrote. “There is absolutely no reason why this settlement agreement should allow additional time for the cyclones to be repaired.” But the criticisms went unheeded in the final deal. “One doesn’t always get one’s way,” Daniel says.
Skipping the additional tests saved Solite thousands of dollars. That galls many Solite critics—especially in the light of the $22,000 fine. “The penalty doesn’t even cover how much Solite saved from not testing emissions for dioxins and metals,” McClintock says. “They jerk the state around for a year on the property boundary issue, have their permit revoked, violate their permit standards for emissions for almost a year, do nothing to fix the emission problems, and were fined only $22,000. There has been absolutely no monetary incentive for Solite to clean up their waste-management practices. They’ve gotten away with violating state regulations and their permit, and saved money doing it.”
HOW SAFE IS SOLITE NOW? In short, no one knows.
In June, state toxicologist Luanne Williams found that Solite was emitting high levels of arsenic, a chemical linked to lung, liver, kidney, bladder and skin cancers. Williams concluded that the excess cancer risk for someone living near Solite is about 4.7 out of 1 million. That’s almost five times the acceptable state standards.
“It’s certainly not high enough to declare it an imminent health hazard,” says Williams. “I wouldn’t expect people to die or have health effects.”
But according to some experts, Williams’ numbers are seriously underestimated. That’s because they’re based on a single data point—Solite’s current arsenic emissions, which are lower than in years past thanks to state-mandated control technology. The problem is that many Aquadale residents have lived near the factory for decades, during which Solite was spewing higher levels of the chemical. Williams’ study doesn’t take into account the exposure levels residents have faced in the past. Nor does it consider pollutants other than arsenic. Solite emits PCBs, cadmium, mercury, nickel, chlorine—”a toxic soup,” says Neil Carman, the former air inspector. “Absolutely no consideration has been given to this major public health issue.” Williams agrees that arsenic statistics alone are “insufficient to adequately characterize the total risks to the residents living near Solite.”
That uncertainty has mobilized Aquadale’s residents to do battle with Carolina Solite and the state government. They’ve banded together to form Stanley Citizens Opposed to Toxic Chemical Hazards (SCOTCH), a grassroots group that has called on regulators to enforce the law as strictly as possible. SCOTCH members have written letters, challenged permits, filed lawsuits, held demonstrations, met with regulators and legislators, and attended public hearings en masse. They say they don’t want to shut the plant down; they simply want it to use clean-burning natural gas instead of coal and hazardous waste. Solite’s Holt says that, financially, natural gas is “not a feasible alternative.”
Most of all, SCOTCH members want the state to get more serious about protecting the health of the community. “We’re living every day with an attitude of ‘I’m being gassed and nobody cares,'” says Jahala Williams, a quality assistant at a local textile mill. “Absolutely nobody cares.” “It’s like David and Goliath,” she adds. “But we don’t seem to have the right pebble.”