A long metal building. A Stop sign can be seen near an opening to the left of the photo.

The Long, Complicated Legacy of a North Carolina Company Town

In the 1950s, Badin, North Carolina, was a segregated town divided by a titanic plant owned by the Aluminum Company of America. The company owned not just the plant, but also the schools, homes, and streets. On the town’s western side, known variously as West Badin or Negro Village, the alleyways went unpaved. Residents recall workers used a unique substance to tamp down the dust. “They would get PCB oils out of the power breakers and transformers,” said Macy Hinson, who grew up in West Badin. He remembers seeing trucks spread the oily concoction on the dirt.

As a youth, Hinson held the company, now known as Alcoa, in high regard. His family moved to Badin (pronounced Bay-din) in the 1940s to seek jobs at the plant. The Hinsons had been farmers, and Alcoa offered a lucrative and stable alternative to sharecropping. Black acquaintances from other parts of the country remarked on the presence of indoor plumbing in the Hinsons’ Alcoa-owned home, and Hinson grew up longing to work at Alcoa like his father and uncles. He started there when he was 19 and stayed for nearly 33 years.

“I thought Alcoa was the guardian savior,” he said.

Hinson, now in his 70s, is an affable, friendly man, wearing a t-shirt from a seafood restaurant in the next town over. He’s prone to such phrases as “if I can’t make you smile, I’ll leave you alone.” But talk of Alcoa darkens his mood. Years ago, Hinson saw a collection of obituaries kept by Valerie Tyson, another former Alcoa employee, outlining the causes of death for his friends and colleagues at the plant: cancers and breathing-related diseases.

While he couldn’t prove that Alcoa had caused these deaths, Hinson found it strange that so many of his coworkers had died of similar conditions. Hinson went on to learn that the toxic substances used in aluminum smelting are associated with the illnesses that killed his coworkers. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, for example, have been linked to an array of negative health effects in non-human animals, including cancer and nervous system issues. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, human studies suggest PCBs likely cause cancer in humans as well.

“I get angry when I think about some of this stuff,” Hinson said.

In 1980, Alcoa first applied for a hazardous waste permit from the EPA and the state of North Carolina. A series of rule changes by the EPA, however, initially left the company with little obligation to clean up sites around its plant. The following decade, Alcoa began working with the state to manage its waste. Since then, Alcoa has undertaken efforts to monitor and/or remediate dozens of sites and toxic runoff outfalls. In an email to Undark relayed through communications consultant Robert Brown, Alcoa director of transformation/asset planning and management Robyn Gross said the company is “doing everything we have been asked to do — and much more — to protect human health and the environment.”

Macy Hinson stands near his childhood home in West Badin, on Lee Street behind the Alcoa plant. Usually an affable, friendly man, talk of Alcoa darkens his mood. “I get angry when I think about some of this stuff,” he said. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark

But with other Alcoa smelting plants in Texas and New York having been extensively cleaned up, Hinson and a coalition of advocates, nonprofits, lawyers, and other residents say that Alcoa has not done enough in Badin. They say that some of these sites are still dangerous because they’re leaching substances such as fluoride and cyanide. They also point to runoff from decades of aluminum smelting dripping into nearby Badin Lake, as well as what they describe as racist decisions that put Black workers in the most dangerous jobs and Black-owned houses near the biggest waste dumps. Badin has become a crucible for questions about the legacy of industrialization, racial capitalism, and environmental justice in the American South, and for how choices made and prejudices fomented a century ago reverberate into the present — with the added complication that Badin was a company town.

Even after Badin incorporated as a town in 1990, its charter prohibited the local government from regulating or censuring any industry, and the present-day town government has not participated in the push for a cleanup. According to a body of social science research, the nature of company towns adds another layer to the already complicated relationship between workers and their employers in industrial America. Company towns were set up as paternalistic caretakers, saviors, and guardians against the cruel outside world. They proliferated in the late 19th century and saw their heyday in the early 20th, across industries ranging from railroads to coal; at their peak, there were 2,000 of these towns scattered across the United States. They ranged from seemingly idyllic communities, like the chocolate-producing town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, to exploitative, dangerous places, like those that dotted coal country in Appalachia.

Badin falls somewhere in the middle. Pavithra Vasudevan, an assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, interviewed Badin residents in the 2010s to understand Alcoa’s legacy. In a 2019 paper, she wrote that she had “expected narratives of exploitation, but was confronted everywhere by care.” Alcoa, she noted, was “ever the benevolent father.” The company gave residents schools, roads, jobs, an escape from sharecropping, and an identity. Efforts to confront and remediate the damage have moved slowly, in part, because residents didn’t want to believe that their beloved company could be harming them.

Although the definition of a company town varies, in its strictest form, a company town is a space where an industry owns and controls everything from shops to government. These towns “are the product of their designers’ hope that shaping the built environment in particular ways will allow them to further their political, economic, and cultural goals, whether these be exerting greater control over their labor force, ensuring the development of particular types of industrial relations, or, perhaps more altruistically, providing their workers with better housing than they might otherwise be able to secure,” according to the book “Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities.”

By their nature, companies may control nearly every aspect of life in this kind of place. In the company town of Alcoa, Tennessee, for example, you couldn’t “sharpen a pencil without getting approval from a Company official,” Russell D. Parker wrote in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly in 1978.

The story of Badin as a company town begins during the aluminum rush in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when companies sprang up all over the world to manufacture this lightweight, strong, versatile, rust-proof metal. Because aluminum smelting is energy-intensive, these companies turned to hydropower, a renewable resource. In the 1910s, there was a “global mad scramble” to find prime locations for factories, said Ryke Longest, co-director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

In 1912, a group of Frenchmen decided to open a smelting plant in North Carolina, near the Yadkin River. They named the surrounding area after Adrien Badin, who became head of the firm in 1914, and started building a dam. But then World War I sent the French racing back to Europe. In 1915, Alcoa bought the unfinished dam, the plant, and the town, and began smelting two years later. The company cranked out aluminum through World War II with a near-monopoly. At its peak, the facility produced more than 125,000 tons of aluminum per year.

In its strictest form, a company town is a space where an industry owns and controls everything from shops to government.

When Alcoa bought Badin from its French founders, the company added to the existing housing stock, building laborers’ cottages, bungalows, and superintendents’ houses, available at varying rental costs. All of this took place during the Jim Crow era. On the east side of the plant, White families took up residence on streets named after trees, while on the west side, Black families made their homes on streets named after presidents or Confederate generals. (Hinson was born on Lee Street.)

Producing aluminum is notoriously dirty. It first entails mining bauxite, a sedimentary rock that’s composed of aluminum hydroxides, iron oxide, silica, and other impurities. The crushed bauxite is then mixed with sodium hydroxide to extract aluminum oxide, leaving behind a highly toxic red sludge in the process. Workers place the aluminum oxide into steel cells — commonly known as pots — lined with carbon, where it gets converted into aluminum through an electrochemical process. Once impurities are removed from the molten metal, workers mold the aluminum into ingots, pieces of pure metal ready for the market. In the process, they run the risk of burns and exposure to a panoply of toxic materials.

According to researchers and former plant employees, Alcoa commonly employed Black workers in the plant’s most hazardous area — the place that contained the cells, known as the potroom. When the aluminum dropped to the bottom of these pots, it left behind a variety of toxins on the lining— cyanide, fluoride, “almost anything on the periodic table,” said Nancy Lauer, a geochemist by training who works as a lecturing fellow and staff scientist at the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University. (Lauer doesn’t receive any compensation from the nonprofits or residents challenging Alcoa.)

The Badin Museum is filled to the brim with information about Alcoa, including its founder, Charles Martin Hall, and other leaders pictured here. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
A museum display shows housing in West Badin in 1917 built during the Jim Crow era. Black families and White families were segregated on opposite sides of the Alcoa plant. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
A museum book holds photos of the cottages in West Badin. Several different models of cottages and bungalows were built in Badin, with varying rental costs. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
Museum curator David Summerlin points to a photo that shows the inside of the Alcoa plant, where aluminum was produced through a notoriously dirty process. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark

According to Vasudevan’s interviews, potroom workers were colloquially called the bull gang because of the strength required to wield a sledgehammer and shatter the toxic crust that lined the pots. While Alcoa maintains that race was not a consideration in where employees were assigned, Vasudevan’s research suggests Black workers often received these jobs because many industrial employers at the time wrongly thought that Black bodies could withstand heat better than White bodies. One former White employee told Vasudevan that Alcoa sent recruiters to farms and cotton fields in search of Black workers to fill positions in the potroom, where it would get “hot, hot, hot.”

Hinson started out at Alcoa in the ingot department, toiling every day in noise and filth. Once, he said, higher-ups came in wearing hazmat suits, walking past him and the other workers in their normal clothes.

Meanwhile, Black workers and their families recall being exposed to toxins in their neighborhood, too. Hinson says ash billowed from smokestacks and settled over West Badin. Women scrubbed their husbands’ stained clothing, possibly contaminated with oil and asbestos. Kids played in a pool of muck that is now known to contain hazardous waste from the plant.

“I started realizing that the things they were doing and having people do, it was killing them,” Hinson said. (When asked about Hinson’s allegation, Gross replied: “Alcoa is a values-based company, and the safety and health of our employees is paramount. We are always working to ensure the protection of our employees, the communities where we are located, and the environment by complying with relevant rules and regulations. This includes taking steps to constantly improve working conditions. Alcoa is proud that we have been a leader in improving working conditions in the aluminum industry.”) Later Hinson started vying for new jobs, moving on to become a power dispatch operator before eventually finding a position as a dam supervisor.

The 20th century ended and the 21st started, and then, something happened that Hinson never thought he would see in his lifetime. Alcoa, the town’s backbone and raison d’etre, closed its plant. Badin transitioned from company town to regular town, albeit one run by a local government prohibited from regulating industry. Operations were shifted overseas to Iceland, where many aluminum smelters have moved over the past 20 years, enticed by the country’s low-cost hydropower and geothermal energy. (Alcoa does still operate some plants in the United States.)

Badin’s population contracted, from 5,000 people at its 1920s heyday to less than 2,000 now, including the inmates at the nearby Albemarle Correctional Institution. The company left behind part of its giant plant, the town, and numerous waste areas. These dumps and contaminated sites are scattered across the area in pine copses and beneath the grass.

The old Alcoa plant in Badin, North Carolina. A faded sign reads “Potrooms” — said to be the most hazardous place in the plant. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
Inside part of the empty Alcoa plant. At the beginning of the 21st century, Alcoa and other aluminum producers moved much of their operations to Iceland. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
An old waste can inside the Alcoa plant. Scattered across the area, numerous waste areas were left behind. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
After Alcoa closed the plant, Badin became a regular town, though it was still prohibited from regulating industry. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark

Today, Badin resembles many other rural American towns: good bones, a strip of brick buildings on a main street, and pleasant, leafy streets. There are more than a half-dozen churches and a smattering of businesses, including a pizza restaurant, a supper club, an antique store, and a Dollar General. The town is about half White and one-third Black, with many Black residents still living in West Badin.

According to the website for the Badin Business Park, a subsidiary established by Alcoa on the site of its former plant, “tremendous progress” has been made to identify and clean up the company’s past pollution. Starting in the 1990s, in accordance with a federal law called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Alcoa says it has diligently worked with the state of North Carolina to identify and clean up waste areas stemming from its operations, through measures such as capping with soil or clay; implementing systems to collect seepage from the sites; and improving a channel to divert surface water around a landfill.

But Longest sees it differently. He said what’s happening in Badin is “just a slow and steady leaching of hazardous waste.”

According to researchers and former plant employees, Alcoa commonly employed Black workers in the plant’s most hazardous area — the place that contained the cells, known as the potroom.

For years, a series of citizens, environmental groups, and lawyers have challenged Alcoa’s narrative surrounding cleanup at the plant. It started with workers and family members filing compensation claims against Alcoa for the health impacts of working in an aluminum smelting plant. The following decade, during a relicensing process for the plant, a nonprofit called the Yadkin Riverkeeper noticed that Alcoa was failing to monitor and clean up pollution in nearby Badin Lake and sought pro-bono legal representation from the law clinic at Duke.

When Hinson heard about these efforts, he said nobody came into the Black neighborhood to ask its residents anything. “So we felt like we were left out of the process,” he said. He and others stepped forward to talk about their experiences with Alcoa, which led to Hinson’s founding a group called Concerned Citizens of West Badin in 2013. Hinson and the other concerned citizens, who numbered about 20 at their height, met regularly to advocate for themselves and for remediation in their community. In 2019, the Southern Environmental Law Center successfully negotiated a settlement on the citizens’ behalf, requiring the company to install a new stormwater system to manage the pollutants. More recently, however, an SELC lawyer told the policy news site NC Policy Watch that continued high levels of fluoride demonstrate that the new system isn’t effective.

The scientists and lawyers involved in monitoring Alcoa are concerned about two main environmental issues. First, the solid waste sites around Badin, which contain toxins from the spent potliner. And second, the PCBs polluting nearby Badin Lake.

A “Welcome to Badin” sign, denoting the town as a national historical site, is poised on the edge of town. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
Homes in West Badin, where many Black residents still live. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
A home in Badin built for a superintendent at the plant. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
This quadraplex, now part of the Badin Historic Museum, is decorated inside to showcase a 1915 Badin residence. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
Downtown Badin, lined with brick buildings and leafy trees. The town is home to a smattering of businesses. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
Macy Hinson (left) and a local resident talk about Alcoa in West Badin. Hinson worked at Alcoa for nearly 33 years, but eventually changed jobs to become a dam supervisor. “I started realizing that the things they were doing and having people do, it was killing them,” Hinson said. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark

Lauer, of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, has been working with Longest for more than three years to monitor Alcoa’s cleanup effort. Her role is to examine Alcoa’s test results to ensure they support the company’s conclusions — and to make recommendations based on her review of data at the site.

“In my opinion, they do the bare minimum when it comes to testing,” she said. From Lauer’s perspective, when Alcoa finds contamination, they attribute it to other factors and abrogate responsibility. “Their data will say something, and their conclusions will say something different.” For example, one site deemed an “area of interest” by the Department of Environmental Quality is a former ballfield near Badin Lake, which Alcoa gifted to the town for a new park this past June. A July 2020 comment letter signed by Lauer and Longest stated that Alcoa’s testing of that area showed elevated levels of possibly carcinogenic chemicals called PAHs, but that Alcoa had concluded that the PAHs were simply “background soil concentrations.”

When asked why the company attributes these PAHs to background contamination, Gross replied: “Comparing study findings with the known presence of chemicals in the environment is a standard practice endorsed by state and federal environmental agencies and has been used in conjunction with comparison to state and federal criteria.”

In that July 2020 comment letter, Longest and Lauer further picked apart the results of Alcoa’s work plans to clean up three main areas, including the dump where Hinson once played and that ballfield. Lauer and Longest asserted that the data actually show ongoing, worrisome contamination at all of these sites. For example, surveys of the flood plains in the area indicate elevated levels of fluoride, cyanide, PCBs, and PAHs — suggesting these chemicals could stem from the Alcoa sites despite remediation efforts.

In studies of workers in Canada and Norway, aluminum smelting has been associated with higher rates of some cancers than in the general population. And a recent study published in Nature Communications also found that proximity to Superfund sites, highly contaminated sites managed by the EPA, decreased average life expectancy by about two months, a number that could grow to more than a year when combined with other factors such as low income or race.

Co-director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Ryke Longest, has been monitoring Alcoa’s environmental issues and advocating for the town. Visual: Ken Huth/Duke University
Nancy Lauer of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University. She has been working with Longest to make sure Alcoa’s test results line up with the company’s conclusions. Visual: Courtesy of Nancy Lauer
Health data analyst Libby McClure published a study on the health outcomes of hundreds of Alcoa union members employed between 1980 and 2007. Visual: Courtesy of Libby McClure

A study on Badin itself bears out these adverse health outcomes. Work by health data analyst Libby McClure, who currently works at DataWorksNC and is also a postdoctoral researcher at the NC Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center, supports worker concerns that exposure to pollutants during the aluminum smelting process causes bladder and lung cancer. As her 2020 Ph.D. dissertation at UNC-Chapel Hill, McClure conducted a study of health outcomes for 754 union members employed at Alcoa between 1980 and 2007. The study found lower mortality rates than in the general North Carolina population — a fact that McClure attributes to high poverty in the rest of the state and “healthy worker bias,” wherein wages and retirement benefits elevated these workers above the average contemporary North Carolinian. But she also found higher rates of death by bladder cancer and mesothelioma among these workers, while noting the findings were based on just a handful deaths. McClure also found that workers employed in the potroom, more likely to be Black workers, were 1.5 times more likely to die of cancer than workers who were never employed in the potroom. In addition, she found that Black female workers at Alcoa experienced excess mortality relative to the general North Carolina population, and that Black male workers died of cancer at greater rates.

Gross said in an email that Alcoa disagrees with the assumptions in McClure’s conclusions, which were published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, pointing out that she uses the word “imprecise” to describe her own findings. (In an email to Undark, McClure explained that she “used the term ‘imprecise’ in a purely statistical way,” and that it “does not in any way reflect uncertainty in the number of deaths we documented in the analyses.”)

The story of Badin is in many ways the story of environmental justice concerns throughout the South. Vasudevan started her research career in Warren County, North Carolina, a majority-Black area that’s considered the birthplace of the environmental justice movement, and is familiar with environmental justice throughout the region, although Badin is the first company town she has studied.

“You start noticing a lot of the same patterns,” she said, including political and social exclusion for people of color, exclusion from decision-making processes, and connections between racism and environmental and workplace safety. She’s written about the similarities between Badin and Flint, Michigan, and she even drew comparisons to health outcomes in the Covid-19 pandemic, during which people of color were more likely to fall sick on the job.

These typical environmental justice narratives are compounded when they take place in a company town. Alcoa no longer owns Badin, but the legacy of that era of control lingers. In an email to Undark, Edgar Miller, the executive director of the nonprofit Yadkin Riverkeeper, wrote that Badin “is truly a company town and the local officials have been reluctant to criticize Alcoa and/or engage [with] their constituents who have concerns about the plant site.” He said he reached out to the mayor and a town council member earlier this year with a request for a spot on the agenda for the next council meeting, but when nothing came of it, he let it drop. Although many governments in many towns side with local industry, Badin is unusual because the town charter literally prohibits officials from regulating or taking action against Alcoa or other industry.

Jay Almond, the town manager of Badin since 2008, wrote in an email that while the town values “complete and accurate empirical data when compiled and fairly reported by reliable sources,” he and other officials are not worried about the pollution, because Alcoa and the NC Department of Environmental Quality have assured them that the site poses no risk to public safety. When asked about the town charter prohibiting regulation of Alcoa, he replied, “Rigorous regulatory standards of the state and county easily out-stride any opportunity for regulatory action by the town.”

The legacy of psychological control, too, lingers in Badin. When Vasudevan conducted her interviews with Badin residents in the 2010s, she found that “it’s very difficult for people to speak out” about company towns — a conclusion echoed by research of other company town residents around the world. To help further the dialogue, she turned their tales into a play, which professional actors performed at a church in neighboring New London in 2016. In an email, she wrote that the play, “catalyzed a public community conversation with some who may not have been interested in doing an interview with me (for a variety of reasons).” It explored stories from individual Alcoans and their families about their evolving relationship with the company, about the illnesses they endured after their employment there, and about the slow, fraught process of realizing that toxins and pollution may have damaged their environment and saddled them with breathing problems and a higher risk of cancer.

Pavithra Vasudevan, an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Visual: Courtesy of Pavithra Vasudevan/UNC Chapel Hill
The playbill for Vasudevan’s “Race and Waste in an Aluminum Town,” which depicted Alcoa residents’ evolving relationship with the company. Visual: Courtesy of Pavithra Vasudevan

After the play, said Vasudevan, the audience engaged in a lively dialogue about what they’d seen; she said the former Alcoa employees were both delighted and saddened to see voice finally given to their stories, although she said that town officials in the audience did not comment or respond to the play.

Some Alcoa residents still feel protective of their erstwhile employer. At the Badin Museum, which houses a collection of ephemera from the town’s storied history, curator David Summerlin reminisced about his history with the plant. Now in his 80s, Summerlin started there as a hedge trimmer, left to join the Air Force, returned and worked there for more than 25 years, just like his father before him.

“I have nothing against Alcoa,” he said. “They were good to me all the way.”

Some of the residents who support Alcoa hope the company will bring jobs back to the area. Others have fond memories of their longtime employer. Many still feel a strong sense of gratitude. Vanessa Mullinix, now the owner of the 1913 Badin Inn, said she took a job in the potroom in 1994 and stayed for 10 years. “I knew it was a dirty, hot place. But they paid me well. I had good insurance,” she said.

“They got me out of what could have been poverty,” Mullinix added. She thinks the allegations against Alcoa are blown out of proportion and that groups like Hinson’s have “been spitting in their face for 15 years. They have been fighting a company that brought education, that brought culture to this area.”

Hinson described why many in town stay local to Alcoa: The company took care of their families and gave them high wages. Under those circumstances, “aren’t you going to protect them?”

Roger Dick’s grandfather was an early employee of Alcoa, working in a lab, and his father worked on the dam. Dick, now chief executive officer of a local bank, said that some residents focus on the company’s gifts to the town while not seeing the larger picture. Alcoa was drawn to Badin because of the river, a resource Dick said the public had a right to. “They never really understood that,” he added. Alcoa generated hydropower from the river to run its operations, yet “people will tell you how grateful they are that Alcoa just gave them a park,” said Dick, referring to the former ballpark where Alcoa testing confirmed the presence of contaminants.

David Summerlin stands inside the Badin Museum next to photos and items from the Alcoa plant. Some residents, like Summerlin, still feel protective of their erstwhile employer. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark
Macy Hinson sits in his current home, just outside of Badin, North Carolina. Hinson thinks people still protect Alcoa because the company took care of their families and provided high wages. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark

On sunny days, Badin’s eponymous lake glimmers past the town’s trees and brick buildings. This 8-square-mile lake was birthed when the company dammed a local river in 1917, and now the lake’s northern points and coves are lined with vacation homes. Families, many of them Latino, drive in from Charlotte to bathe and boat at the sandy strip known as Badin Beach. Some people fish in the lake, either recreationally or potentially for sustenance.

Now, the lake is the site of a related contamination fight — one that speaks to another environmental justice issue, pertaining to whose concerns are taken seriously. Alcoa has discharged fluoride and cyanide into this lake and nearby Little Mountain Creek for years, said Lauer. And for years, the company failed to meet its permit levels for the creek. “They’re in noncompliance and they should get fined for it,” she said. “But instead they have been getting these special orders by consent to keep things business as usual.”

Alcoa applied for another such special order of consent in late 2020, asking the state to allow it to divert the discharge from the creek to Badin Lake, where it has a more lenient permit. When a group of neighbors living on the lake found out what was going on, they formed an organization called Protect Badin Lake. They started a petition that received nearly 5,000 signatures, and people sent more than 350 comments to the Department of Environmental Quality. The agency denied the special order of consent, although Alcoa may still submit another request. Miller of the Yadkin Riverkeeper wrote in an email to Undark that the organization is now “working with Alcoa to hire an independent facilitator to develop a stakeholder process to address issues” regarding the permit. “The facilitator,” he wrote, “has identified the Town of Badin as a key stakeholder in that process and will be invited to participate, mostly likely being represented by the Town Manager.”  

Hinson stands at the edge of the Badin Lake near the former ballfield in Badin, which many argue is still contaminated with waste from the plant. This past June, Alcoa gifted the site to the town for a new park. Visual: Cornell Watson for Undark

To Jen Caldwell, one of Protect Badin Lake’s founders, the idea of allowing Alcoa to divert the discharge into the lake is unthinkable. “If you let Alcoa, which has been getting away with this for 30 years plus, dump there, what is going to be their next step?” she said, adding that when she takes her boat across Badin Lake to pick up pizza, she has to walk right over that ballfield.

Concerned Citizens of West Badin and Protect Badin Lake are working together on their clean-up goals now, after Concerned Citizens learned about Protect Badin Lake in the course of being interviewed for this article. But some stakeholders expressed umbrage at how quickly Protect Badin Lake caught the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality, which has approved special orders of consent in the past. Lauer and Chandra Taylor, a lawyer who has represented Concerned Citizens of West Badin, attributed Protect Badin Lake’s organizing power in part to their race — many members are White.

“This is what happens,” said Taylor. “If we talk about the cause of environmental injustice, one of the factors is always either a lack of political power and influence or a perceived lack of connections that would build up social capital. That, to me, is at play here.”

A meeting of the Concerned Citizens of West Badin in 2019. Valerie Tyson (center) holds up obituaries that she has collected over the years. The group was founded by Hinson (right) in 2013 to advocate for remediation. Visual: Courtesy of Libby McClure

Badin is not a lost cause. It’s possible to clean up sites with this kind of pollution and environmental damage, said the Duke experts.

Lauer said that in an ideal world, Alcoa would excavate all the hazardous waste and deposit it in a lined and permitted landfill. That could happen under the EPA: While the Alcoa site in Badin has been evaluated for listing under Superfund in the past, Alcoa has so far managed its own cleanup under an older framework established by the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, administered by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

But critics, many of whom say the state has been too lax, want the EPA to list the area as a Superfund site.

“To leave hazardous waste in unlined landfill this close to bodies of water is just problematic in my opinion,” Lauer said. “We’ve seen that Alcoa has been able to excavate this at other sites and put it in a hazardous waste landfill. It’s entirely doable,” she said, adding that while Alcoa did not remove PCBs from the lake, they did cap them with sediment in 2013.

“If we talk about the cause of environmental injustice, one of the factors is always either a lack of political power and influence or a perceived lack of connections that would build up social capital. That, to me, is at play here,” said Taylor.

Alcoa has successfully cleaned up other sites that are comparable to Badin. In suing its insurers for exorbitant cleanup costs at dozens of facilities across the country in 1992, Alcoa highlighted smelting sites in Point Comfort, Texas; Massena, New York; and Vancouver, Washington. Alcoa opened its plant in Massena in 1903 (that plant is still in operation) and testing decades later revealed high PCB levels in fish, waterways, and on the property at the plant. The company was required to dredge and cap swathes of land and waterways around the site. In Point Comfort, where a smelting plant opened in 1948, the Texas Department of Health, now known as the Texas Department of State Health Services, found contamination in crabs and fish. Similarly, the EPA required the company to dredge and cap. The EPA listed the Vancouver site, where Alcoa operated until 1985, under Superfund in 1990. The company worked with the state to remove contaminated soil and the EPA delisted the site six years later.

The EPA, however, is not responsible for Badin. Point Comfort, Massena, and Vancouver were all designated federal Superfund sites, allowing the EPA to direct and oversee their cleanup. In Badin, the cleanup is proceeding under RCRA. Under this framework, Vasudevan said, Alcoa was able to designate itself a “responsible polluter” and take charge of its own cleanup. The company sets the tenor and pace of remediation, with NC DEQ providing supervision.

When asked why Alcoa cleaned up sites like Massena and Point Comfort more comprehensively, Gross said, “No two sites are the same. Each has its own unique set of requirements that need to be addressed in a responsible and comprehensive manner.”

An aerial view of the Alcoa plant (center) and Badin Lake (upper right). While Alcoa has successfully cleaned up other sites similar to Badin, some wonder why the town has been left in the lurch. Critics want the EPA to list the area as a Superfund site. Visual: Courtesy of Nathan Guerin

McClure pointed out that the former Alcoa workers and the population of Badin include a higher percentage of people of color than the Massena and Point Comfort sites, although Massena is adjacent to the St. Regis Mohawk tribal lands. Vancouver’s population is also predominately White. But Vasudevan pointed out another reason: The American South has historically been a place of loose worker protections, as well as lax oversight of environmental issues and industrial shenanigans — part of the systematic issues underlying this whole controversy.

Lauer agreed that North Carolina is partly to blame. “The state has not really done what they need to do to hold Alcoa accountable,” she said. “Alcoa is seemingly able to get away with a lot.”

The successful clean-ups at Massena, Point Comfort, and Vancouver — at a cost of more than $240 million for the Massena site alone — means that Alcoa could conceivably clean up Badin too.

Alcoa is now conducting an ecological risk assessment for the former ballfield and the Alcoa/Badin landfill, but Lauer is unsure of how much human health will be considered. Ideally, she said, the company would look at the impacts of living, working, and vacationing in this area. What does swimming in the lake do to the human body over time? What about dust exposure? Having a home in West Badin? Eating the fish? A study like the one Lauer is proposing would systemically analyze all of these questions. But as of now, nobody has those answers.

On a hot June day this year, Hinson finished up work at Lowe’s, about 45 minutes away in Kannapolis, and then headed back to his house just outside of Badin. As the day dimmed, he drove down to Badin Lake, which is just across a highway from the old plant. Boats skimmed the surface of the lake, and happy vacationers bustled around with towels and swimwear, their hatchbacks popped and opened towards the shore. Others floated on tubes in the water. Near the boat launch lay that ballfield, gifted by Alcoa to the town.

“I thought they were here to save everyone in this area,” said Hinson. “And they were — so long as it benefited them.”

He pointed out a jumble of faded bricks on the shore. A train used to arc along the lake here, he said, and workers from the plant would dump bricks into the water. As far as he knows, no one has tested these bricks, so nobody knows if they’re contaminated or not, but either way, he said they’re waste from the former plant. Hinson looked down at these relics from the place where he, his family, and his friends spent their careers.

His message to Alcoa: “Clean it up and admit that you did it,” he said. “Apologize to whomever’s left.”

Emily Cataneo is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, Slate, NPR, The Boston Globe, and Atlas Obscura, among other publications. Find her on Twitter @EmilyCataneo.