In the last several days, there has been a significant amount of hyperbolic, unsubstantiated claims about the Waelz Sustainable Products (WSP) zinc production facility popping up across Facebook and in the [opinion] pages of the Pharos-Tribune. It is important that the public dialogue around this project remain constructive and rooted in fact and evidence-based science. As an expert in toxicology and hazardous waste management, and as someone working with WSP to analyze and prepare environmental data for the state, county and city, allow me to help get the discussion back onto factual footing.

A recent column made several specific unsubstantiated allegations about the impacts of the SDR facility in Millport, Alabama. I have made a significant effort to substantiate the following allegations, without success. Cass County residents deserve to know the facts.

1. Claim: “Nearly 15% of the [Millport] population has moved away from the area since the plant was put into operation….their population is now down to under 1,000.”

Fact: According to census.gov, the population of Lamar County (where Millport is) decreased 8.4% from 2000 to 2010. Millport itself decreased 9.6% in that decade, to 1,049 residents. The facility came online in 2008. There are no census estimates since 2010, but the mayor of Millport, Stanley Allred, believes the new census data will show a stable population since the last census and perhaps even a slight increase since the SDR facility went online. So, the question is, what is the source of the claim of 15% reduction in population since 2008?

2. Claim: “[Lamar County] is still a poverty-stricken area.”

Fact: This claim is simply incorrect. According to census.gov, as of 2018, the U.S. poverty rate was 13.1%. It was 16.8% in Alabama, and 17.4% in Lamar County. As regrettable as any poverty is, four percentage points over the national average would not be considered “poverty-stricken.” And the best cure for poverty, of course, is jobs, especially good ones. According to the project website, WSP will create jobs that pay an average of $49,000, approximately 35% above the average wage for private industry in Cass County. For comparison, the poverty rate in Indiana is 13.0% and 13.5% in Cass County, which is up significantly from a county rate of 8.5% in 2000.

3. Claim: “The people in this [Lamar] county, over the past 10 years since this plant opened, suffer from respiratory illnesses at a rate 20% greater than the national average … those people suffer respiratory illnesses at a rate 25% greater than those in the rest of their state. Analysis of the statistics shows a heightened rate after this plant came online. The death rate from lung related illness [in Lamar County? Millport?] has gone up 36.6% in the past five years over what it was the previous five years.”

Fact: After inquiring with the Alabama State and Lamar County health departments, as well as Millport, none of their health officials were aware of or had ever heard of these statistics. Where did these statistics come from?

4. Claim: “The rate of Alzheimer’s [in Lamar County? Millport?] has gone up by 46.6% during the last five years vs. the preceding five years.”

Fact: A call to the Alabama State Epidemiologist, Dr. Sherri Davidson, revealed that Alzheimer’s disease is not tracked in Alabama and no such figures exist in the state of which she is aware. Here again, where did these figures come from?

It is important that as we move forward, we continue to have a fact-based conversation and open dialogue. This is not a time or place for “fake news.” WSP respects local concerns, especially those about health-related issues. The company continues to provide information, facts and the underlying sources to support those facts on the project’s website, www.wspcasscounty.com, so that the citizens of Cass County can have an informed discussion about the proposed project and how WSP plans to invest in and improve the quality of life in Cass County.

Dr. Kathryn Kelly, DrPH, MEd is President of Delta Toxicology and received her masters and doctorate degrees in environmental toxicology and hazardous waste management from Columbia University School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Sciences, and her undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University. Dr. Kelly advises WSP analyzing and preparing environmental data.

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