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Small town fights big business for clean air and straight answers

Small town fights big business for clean air and straight answers

MOORESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — When Pam Mitchell goes outside, she is instantly surrounded by her two bulldogs.

Her backyard is less crowded than it used to be. A few weeks ago, her third bulldog died from a mysterious respiratory illness. In January, Mitchell was diagnosed with bronchitis.

“I got bronchitis and I got over it. Got bronchitis again, got over it and went to the doctor both times and then when I went to the last time, which was last month, she said it’s pneumonia, so that is three episodes. All of my grandkids have been sick with bronchitis. And my son-in-law. And my daughter,” said Mitchell.

She still has a nasty, lingering cough and Mitchell isn’t alone. Several of her neighbors developed breathing issues.

Buford Meades lives just down the street from Mitchell in Bethany Park. On Jan. 6, he says for the first time in his life he was diagnosed with pneumonia and at the same time, his oldest daughter developed breathing issues.

“I went through almost a month and a half of having pneumonia and having X-rays done on my chest to find out what is going on with my lungs, so pretty much with the whole town of Bethany. If you go and talk to anyone in town, everybody has been sick,” said Meades.

What is making everyone sick?

Several people in Bethany Park have an idea: Arcosa Lightweight, just a half mile down the road.

Starting in late December of 2019, dust escaped from the plant. Video taken by William Kikendall, the owner of a Brickyard Imported Car Parts, shows the dust coated hundreds of cars on his lot. Kikendall covered one of his cars with a tarp to preserve the dust and collected some of the dust and sent it to a lab.

“I know it is 22 percent respitorory silica,” said Kikendall.

According to Arcosa’s website, they make a special, lightweight aggregate used in various forms of concrete. Part of the process involves superheating shale and clay to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit in kilns, with the emission captured in the smokestacks or in special buildings. At least twice, the emission collection system failed, sending dust into Bethany Park.

The town of Bethany Park invited Arcosa representatives to their Feb. 26 meeting. At the time, at least two town council members were sick and people in town wanted answers. I-Team 8 was given audio recordings of the meeting.

At the meeting, Matt Hallmark, the Vice President of Engineering for Arcosa, told the people in attendance that mechanical failures in the emission control systems allowed dust to escape into the air. The company declined our invitation to speak on camera and sent the following statement to I-Team 8.

“Our plant near the Town of Bethany processes shale into pumice-like material that is used in a variety of horticulture and construction products. Since we took over the plant in 2017, we have decreased the number of significant violations reported to IDEM. We are talking with both IDEM and residents. Those conversations have been productive. We are working with both the state and residents to mitigate any further releases of dust.  We are not aware of any adverse health issues.

Jeff Eller, spokesperson for Arcosa

Dr. Ryan Boente, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep & Occupational Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, says there are reasons for concern, both in the short-term and years down the road.

“I think what you worry about is the asystematic, the people that are exposed now and not having symptoms they are still having low grade exposure and it can manifest much later in life, so there are people that could have some lung disease that may result 10, 20, 30 years down the road that could be related to this chronic dust exposure,” said Dr. Boente.

The United States Department of Labor website outlines exposure limits for people working with silica material. Three years ago, the PEL., or personal exposure level, was lowered to better protect workers. The Department of Labor says “extremely high concentrations of respirable crystalline silica can lead to severe disabling shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss, which often leads to death.”

During the Bethany Park town meeting in February, the Arcosa representative promised to keep lines of communication open with the town and assured the town council that repairs to the emission system had been made. A few days after the meeting, there was a third occurrence.

“We had another episode because when we called to let him know, ‘hey, we got dust again,’ he said ‘yes, we had a catastrophic event,’” said Mitchell.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has inspected the facility six times in the last five years and recently issued a letter of violation. The third dusting of Bethany Park is still under investigation by the agency.

Going forward, people in Bethany Park are concerned about their health. They don’t know to what level they have been exposed or if the exposure will have long-term health consequences.