'Love Canal South': Alabama DDT residue will cost millions to clean up

Grass and weeds cover the site where the plant stood on a military base near this small northern Alabama town. But a sign on a fence around the site is the tipoff of the drama that unfolded here -- and it still unfolding.

"Keep Out -- DDT Area."

In 1970, after years of wrangling by federal environmental and, later, Army officials, a privately run DDT manufacturing plant on the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Ala., closed. Two years later, the plant was demolished. High levels of DDT contamination had been detected in the waters downstream from the plant.

Today an estimated 837 tons of DDT waste still lie in those waters -- just upstream from Triana. Small amounts of it are slowly slipping downstream into the Tennessee River, the water supply for many towns and cities.

Tests in Triana, a low-income community whose residents traditionally caught fish from the Tennessee to supplement their food supplies, show the people have the highest levels of DDT of any Americans.

Cleanup costs are likely to exceed those estimated for the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., according to estimates by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Federal environment officials consider this to be one of the nation's most important waste disposal problems. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) calls it a "critical" case.

Yet the residents of Triana wait -- with some anxiety, according to a local health official -- as attorneys for all sides involved seek to get someone to pay for the cleanup and damages.

"Fish is the cheapest meat you can get," says Triana resident Harry Toney Jr. , sitting on his front porch. He still buys locally sold fish without questioning its origin.

An attorney for commercial fishermen claiming damages from the DDT plant owners says he does not know if commercial fishing continues in the contaminated waters.

But many residents are concerned, says Carleton H. A. Pyfrom, director of a small health clinic in Triana. Triana, he contends, sitting in his tiny office in the back of a trailer, could offer the nation its best information to date on the effects of DDT. But so far no federal or private organization has agreed to fund a study of the situation here.

DDT waste has not only "wiped out" commercial fishing in the area, according to Army spokesman Harris. It also is believed to have seriously affected local wildlife.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service operates Wheeler Wildlife Refuge downstream from the former plant. It is the Southern stopping point for thousands of ducks , geese, and other migratory birds. Between 1948 (a year after the DDT plant opened) and 1959, refuge officials reported a 97 percent drop in the number of double-crested cormorants using it. By 1963 a roughly 90 percent reduction in the number of redshouldered hawks also was being reported.

There have been some increases in the number of birds returning here since the plant was closed.

DDT is known to cause some birds to lay egges with thinner than normal egg shells. Such eggs are easily broken, thus reducing reproduction. The chemical also has been found to have direct adverse effects on the health of test animals , says Zeller.

Olin officials dispute the amount of DDT waste left in the area and contend that they followed waste standards required by the Army at the time. But spokesman Charles adds, "Society and companies all have certain responsibilities for what has been done in the past."

A study by the Army Corps of Engineers recommends several options for cleaning up the waste -- at costs ranging up to $137 million. One Option, preferred by the EPA, calls for building a dike around part of the most contaminated area, rerouting the water flow in the rest of it, and filling it in. This way, Zeller claims, little additional DDT would escape downstream.

The US Justice Department, Alabama, commercial fishermen, and Triana residents are suing Olin for damages, cleanup costs, or both. No trial date has been set.

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