GOOSE CREEK, S.C. (WCBD) – Several Goose Creek residents say they are concerned about a powder-like substance that has appeared on vehicles and outdoor furniture over the past several days.
One neighbor who lives in the Persimmon Hill community described the substance as being sandy, gritty, and dust-like being emitted and traveling by air.
“Is it toxic, harmful to breathe for human and animals? What about our water?” the resident asked.
The white dusty emissions appear to be coming from the nearby Century Aluminum plant.
Goose Creek Mayor Greg Habib said in a message to residents that he and State Representative Brandon Cox met with leadership at the plant on Monday to get a better picture of what the dust may be, why it is leaving the plant, and when the problem should be solved.
“The white dust is Alumina dust, which is produced during the smelting process. Alumina dust is not supposed to leave the plant. In fact, the retention of Alumina is an important part of the plant’s ability to make more aluminum,” Mayor Habib explained.
Century Aluminum believes the emissions are connected to an “unusual failure” in the plant’s baghouse. Mayor Habib explained that exhaust from the manufacturing process runs through a scrubber to clean the air, and the Alumina dust is collected into the bags in the baghouse.
The dust is then taken and reintroduced into the manufacturing process to make aluminum.
But while Century Aluminum is not certain of the failure, Mayor Habib said the plant is looking at two possibilities.
First, the mayor said there was a change in suppliers for the filter being used in the baghouse. “Century knows that on three occasions a very small portion of the bags failed. They are currently investigating another batch of bags that will be replaced as a warranty issue,” he said.
The second possibility could be connected to recent “episodes of high pressure” in the baghouse. “Century believes these episodes combined with the failing bags are resulting in the emission problems over the past several months,” said Mayor Habib.
Mayor Habib said Century Aluminum reported the issues to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and is working with the state health agency and technical experts in the field to solve the problems.
“DHEC has two toxicologists in their Charleston office who are familiar with Century Aluminum and aluminum oxide. They have employed three full-time employees in the bag house to identify problems, and they keep a contractor onsite 24 hours a day to address any further issues that may occur. They are soon going to be able to return to their original bag supplier. Finally, they have recruited technical consultants to help them identify the pressure problem,” said Mayor Habib.
Mayor Habib said Century Aluminum has assured his office that they are working diligently to address the emission issues. “I am confident that Century Aluminum has been transparent with me and DHEC. We are hopeful they will have a resolution soon, and we expect to receive an update from DHEC,” he said.
He said that during the 40 years in which the aluminum smelter has operated in the Goose Creek community, there has not been another issue related to emissions from the plant.
Mayor Habib said that he has requested a town hall event with Century Aluminum and DHEC to address the emissions issue and related health risks.
DHEC later told News 2 that its staff is investigating and has both been at the facility and in the community to gather information. “We are working closely with the facility to develop an immediate corrective action plan,” the agency said.
According to DHEC, 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 your skin, eyes, and nose, and can be a respiratory irritant after prolonged exposure.”
The state health agency is deploying portable air sensors to measure any smaller, breathable particulate matter, called “fine particulate matter” (or PM2.5) in the area.
Community members can access the real-time data by clicking the links below. DHEC staff is in the process of setting up the sensors.
DHEC says data will represent all particulate matter (PM) in the area, not just the PM from a single source or single facility. “There can be many different sources of PM emissions within an area. The data from these sensors will help us identify any air quality trends in the community,” health officials said.
News 2 also reached out to Century Aluminum. We are waiting to hear back.