POINT COMFORT, Texas — When the wind blows in this Texas Gulf Coast town, the rusty red dust that drifts from the nearby metals plant sometimes creates hazy storms of dust, coating lawns, trucks and traffic lights.
The dust, along with the red mud lakes that kiss Lavaca Bay, are reminders that the small town of Point Comfort and its Alcoa alumina factory are not far – industry-wise – from Hungary, where a red mud reservoir burst earlier this month, unleashing a massive flood of caustic red sludge that covered nearby villages and killed at least nine people.
Many say the disaster in Hungary is unlikely to happen here. But the United States' three alumina refineries – two in Texas and one in Louisiana – have their own pollution worries.
In both cases, much of the pollution comes from the waste left after alumina, which is used to manufacture aluminum, is extracted from bauxite ore.
In Hungary, the waste_ which is packed with zinc, iron and caustic mercury soda – is stored as mud in manmade reservoirs. But in the U.S., the refineries don't store the waste as mud. Instead, they dry the mud, which turns into red dust. That dust is then stored in reservoirs that residents call "red mud lakes," and on breezy days, the rust-colored particles blow in the air creating tiny dust storms.
Though U.S. plants remove and recycle much of the caustic soda, making the waste less acidic, the dust still affects the lives of nearby residents.
"It settles on your clothes, on your house, on everything else that you have outside," said Elexia O. Henderson, a 75-year-old retired school administrator who lives in Mount Airy, La., near the Noranda Aluminum facility.
Yet these plants also provide decent paying jobs, leaving residents torn between wanting a quality life and the desire for clean air and water.
"Chemicals are a necessity in terms of development," Sam Mannan, a chemical engineer and director of the Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University in College Station, said. "That doesn't mean that just because you provided me clothes, housing, cars and all of that, that I should bargain for getting cancer in 50 or 60 years."
In Point Comfort, some of the pollution is ongoing – such as the omnipresent red dust – and some is a legacy from the years before environmental regulations, like the mercury that leaked from a now-defunct unit of the refinery and contaminated the bay in the 1960s and 1970s, making fishing off-limits even today. Seventy-five miles south of Point Comfort, in Gregory, the dust is still occasionally an issue near the Sherwin Alumina plant though sprinklers try to keep the waste moist to prevent it from blowing away. But in Gramercy, La., some say dust frequently covers everything.
"We all try to just block it out, and we know it's there. You just get to a point in life where you just live here," said Teri Austin, 47, who grew up in Point Comfort and whose father worked at Alcoa for 30 years.
It is unclear whether the red dust is harmful to health. Environmental regulators say the potentially dangerous metals found in the dust are in harmless trace amounts. Mannan, however, points out that even the most benign dust particles, in large quantities, can be detrimental to those with respiratory problems.
In Texas, what lurks in the bay's sediment that poses a greater threat. Deep below the blue waters are thousands of pounds of mercury that leaked for decades, making the bay the nation's largest wholly aquatic Superfund site – a designation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awards sites so contaminated they require complex, long-term cleanups.
"I actually saw the beads of mercury running into the bay," recalls Eddy Arnold Jr., who worked for 12 years in the plant's now-shutdown alkaline facility. "I told my supervisor and he said 'well, you didn't see anything.'"
Then, the EPA was in its infancy and regulation was lax. Still, mercury's dangers were known. Arnold said workers took weekly urine tests to check for mercury.
Since then, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa – which notes this was all legal then – has invested nearly $100 million to clean the bay. It dredged 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, dumping it on 400-acre Dredge Island, a manmade land mass in the bay, said Gary Baumgarten, the EPA's remedial project manager for the site. Some fishing sites remain off-limits and signs warn of potential risks of eating the fish.
Alcoa also monitors groundwater, closed the problematic processing facility and plugged leaking areas. "Given the scope and the scale of that work ... it will take some time until conclusions are drawn," Rob Bear, Alcoa's director of environmental affairs, said.
In the years when mercury was still leaking, Alcoa dominated life in Point Comfort. Nearly everyone worked there. In school, students didn't have No. 2 pencils. Instead, Austin did her work with shiny silver pencils that had "Alcoa" stenciled on the side.
Alcoa also paid for fresh paint jobs for cars after the caustic elements of the red dust ate away the color, Austin said.
"Everybody had really nicely painted vehicles in Point Comfort when we were growing up," she said. "But if that's what it was doing to the cars, my God, what was it doing to us?"
Austin is also bitter about what happened to her father, who died at age 65, seven years after he diagnosed with an asbestos-linked cancer. Like many structures built in the early 20th century, the plant was packed with asbestos. Once it became clear the popular fiber was harmful to people's health and regulations were put in place, Alcoa began monitoring the material, said Mike Belwood, an Alcoa spokesman.
Today, federal and state regulations ensure cleaner operations, and the companies are required to monitor air emissions, groundwater and other pollutants.
Yet things aren't perfect. Between 2005 and 2009, Texas regulators fined Alcoa $152,111 for 27 different violations. Sherwin Alumina was fined just over $48,000 during the same period for 12 violations. Louisiana environmental regulators fined the Gramercy facility $27,000 for one citation during the past five years.
Generally, people keep quiet about pollution, Arnold says, because they want the jobs.
"But if they're killing us, we don't need that cause we're not going to enjoy the fruits of our labor," he said.
Burdeau contributed to this story from Gramercy, La.