Christy Hiett

Fruithurst Elementary principal Christy Hiett in her office goes over information collected by researchers and her group, Cleburne Cancer Concerns. She says a community survey conducted with the help of Auburn researchers identified 38 cases of lymphoma and leukemia since 1987 in Fruithurst and Muscadine. Well water was the common denominator in all the cases, Hiett said. [MARY SELL/ALABAMA DAILY NEWS]

FRUITHURST — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will take soil and water samples in Fruithurst, a tiny town in western Alabama where locals for nearly three years have sounded an alarm about residents’ well water and the number of cancer diagnoses.

A spokesman for the EPA’s Atlanta office said the sampling, likely to happen this month, is a response to an Auburn University report that showed contaminates in private water wells in Fruithurst and nearby Muscadine in Cleburne County near the Georgia line.

Results will be available about two months after collection, according to the EPA.

The federal agency’s presence is welcome by those concerned about the drinking water of hundreds of residents and the cost to get them connected to the county’s water system, where the water has been deemed safe.

“We’ve gotten to 12 cases (of leukemia and lymphoma) in the last six years,” Fruithurst Elementary principal Christy Hiett said. There have been three deaths, two of them in the last six months, she said.

With the help of Auburn, a community survey was recently done. It identified 38 cases of lymphoma and leukemia since 1987 in Fruithurst and Muscadine. Well water was the common denominator in all the cases, Hiett said.

“They either were on well water at some point in their history since 1987 or still are on well water,” she said.

Four of the diagnoses have been in children. One of Hiett’s students is currently ill, she said.

Fruithurst is a community of less than 300 people on U.S. 78, where logging trucks rumble through often and the opening of the only dollar store a few years ago was a significant economic development.

If the town were bigger, outsiders might care more about the water situation, Hiett said.

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Advocates in Washington

Last year, Hiett, who heads a group called Cleburne Cancer Concerns, and researchers from Auburn University got the attention of U.S. Rep Mike Rogers.

“It is welcomed news the EPA plans to test water samples in Fruithurst,” Rogers said recently. “The situation facing Fruithurst citizens’ access to clean water must be an utmost priority for both federal and state officials. It cannot be ignored or dismissed.”

Hiett and others are frustrated by state government's response to their concerns.

“I gave up on the state, they’re not going to help us,” Hiett said in August in her elementary school office. She was raised in Fruithurst.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management doesn’t have authority over private well water, it says. It did perform an initial environmental investigation at the former ProBlend rubber manufacturing site in 2018. That facility has been singled out by advocates as a possible source of contamination. Trace amounts of metals were found in the water and soil, along with one semi-volatile organic compound in the soil, bis(2-ethylhexylphthlate), but none “exceeded established parameters.”

“Soil and surface water samples taken during the investigation failed to identify any constituent above any screening level established by the U.S. EPA,” the ADEM report said.

The site does not present a danger to human health and the environment at this time, the report said.

Asked this month if people should avoid the well water in Fruithurst, ADEM said the data it has received at this point does not indicate contamination above the maximum contaminant levels, which are set by the EPA.

“However, EPA is scheduled to test those wells for additional verification,” an ADEM statement said.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is aware of the leukemia and lymphoma cases in Cleburne County and performed the CDC-recommended analysis, first looking at cancer rates for the area from 2006 to 2015.

The identified cases did not meet the definition of a “cluster” and are within expected ranges based on the comparison population, the department told Alabama Daily News. This year, ADPH repeated the analysis with 2016 data and will do it again with 2017 data.The department continues to investigate new cases.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby is also aware of residents' concern in Fruithurst.

“I am glad that the EPA is looking into the situation in Fruithurst,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the agency and reviewing their findings after further investigation.”

The Auburn findings and Hiett’s concerns have been documented by state media.

The Anniston Star reported that wells in the area have tested positive for high levels of radon, among other contaminants. Radon, which can form naturally, is an invisible and radioactive gas linked to several types of cancer. According to the EPA, radon primarily causes lung cancer, but when consumed with water it can cause internal organ cancer, primarily stomach cancer, the Star said.

Al.com reported in 2018 that researchers found detectable levels of arsenic, lead, barium, cadmium, nickel, chloroform, chromium, selenium, mercury and bis(2-ethylhexylphthlate), which is used in the production of plastics.

Within walking distance from Hiett’s about 240-student elementary school is the now-shuttered ProBlend rubber factory. It operated from 1987 until 2015.

The Fruithurst ProBlend facility was taken over by Preferred Compounding in 2006.

“Obviously we disagree with all the allegations that you may have heard of, and we are fully cooperative with the EPA,” said Andrew Chan, vice president of manufacturing for Preferred Compounding.

Cleburne Cancer Concerns’ documents note a lack of oversight by ADEM at ProBlend and missing water quality reports from the company.

ADEM said the missing reports could indicate that a permitted entity failed to submit information, but it could also be the result of gaps in a hard-copy tracking process prior to the electronic submission of reports.

The Cleburne Cancer Concerns’ information says that of the 24 water reports available, ProBlend was outside of acceptable EPA benchmarks for storm water monitoring multiple times for several criteria, including zinc, lead and chromium.

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Getting off well water

For Hiett and others, getting community members’ homes hooked up to Cleburne Water Authority lines is top priority. It’s also expensive. It will cost millions of dollars to get several hundred people near Fruithurst and Muscadine on municipal water. Grant money was recently used to connect 52 homes, but others in the area don’t have a water line on their roads, adding to the cost.

State Rep. Ginny Shaver, R-Leesburg, hopes the upcoming testing will help get grant money for the area.

“I’m glad the EPA is coming in and looking forward to their testing confirming what we already know,” she said.

In the meantime, Hiett said reverse osmosis filters are a Band-Aid for some homes. There is a waiting list for people who want to cap their wells and get on a water line.

“We had more people begging than we can supply,” Hiett said.

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