More than 50 years after a massive benzene spill released from a derailed train contaminated a South Alabama community, the federal government has removed the site from a list of one of America’s most polluted places.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that all monitoring wells at the Perdido Groundwater Contamination Site in north Baldwin County have shown levels of benzene to be below 5 micrograms per liter five consecutive years – the target of the cleanup plan and low enough to warrant its removal from the Superfund National Priorities List.
Anyone who lived in Alabama in 1965 likely remembers May 17, 1965. For residents of the unincorporated community of Perdido, the day became a living nightmare.
That’s the day an L&N freight train hauling thousands of gallons of liquid benzene – a chemical that has been linked to leukemia and other serious health problems in humans – derailed. Twenty-one cars loaded with the chemical overturned, spilling about 7,600 gallons in the middle of the Perdido community.
Two days later, a flame from a workman’s torch triggered an explosion at the site that leveled three houses and a number of other structures. The surrounding land went up in a torrent of flames that roared for 24 hours before firefighters beat them back. Amazingly, nobody was injured in the derailment or the explosion.
According to AL.com, the town rebuilt and residents moved on. It wasn’t until about 15 years later that residents began to notice a foul taste and odor in their well water. State officials tested the groundwater for bacteria but those tests came back negative. A local hairdresser, who was pregnant at the time, continued to push the state to figure out why the community’s drinking water smelled like kerosene and tasted awful.
Eventually, the state linked the community’s water problem to the benzene spill several years prior and urged the residents of the community to avoid drinking, bathing in, or washing clothes in the water. The Perdido spill site was added to the EPA’s list of the most polluted sites in 1983, after more testing found the residents’ well water contained benzene at thousands of times higher the maximum limit for drinking water.
“No amount of benzene is considered safe for human consumption, but the cleanup target for EPA was to reduce benzene in the aquifer to 5 parts per billion (roughly equal to 5 micrograms per liter). Some initial tests showed levels as high as 28,000 parts per billion,” AL.com reported.
Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical that is formed in natural processes, such as volcanoes and forest fires, but most exposures to benzene result from oil and gas production, factory waste, and other human activities.
According to the American Cancer Society, benzene is highly toxic to humans because it affects the blood. Exposure to benzene also promotes lethal blood cancers, especially acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), and lymphomas.