Citizens voice concerns at REEF rally
by Emily Adams
Resident Joe Clinton wore a military gas mask to a citizen rally about REEF Thursday. Clinton joined about 50 others in expressing the physical effects of the air pollution they say comes from wastewater at the REEF facility.
SYLACAUGA – Holding signs with phrases like “Let us breathe clean air” and “Wake up and smell Sylacauga,” more than 50 residents gathered at Mt. Zion Baptist Church Thursday night to voice their concerns about the odorous toxins they say are coming from REEF.

“It’s abhorrent,” said resident Joe Clinton, who wore a military gas mask to the rally. “The smell is absolutely terrible, and it permeates throughout your home.”

Resident Velda Wallace said toxins from REEF have affected her health, finances and social life since the former waste treatment plant opened in 2007.

“I’m constantly at the doctor with upper respiratory sickness and sinus problems,” said Wallace, who also attributes her dog’s death to the persistent bad smell. “Cost-wise, that means I can’t work as much, and I’m spending more on medical bills. And I dare not invite anyone over to my house to sit in such a horrendous smell.”

She said people have experienced respiratory infections, headaches, dizziness, coughing, nose bleeds, vomiting, pneumonia and weakened immune systems because of toxins. Although government agencies are monitoring the air and say there is no hazard, Wallace said they know it is more than an odor that is causing these side effects.

“When you can taste it, and it leaves a greasy film in your mouth, that’s not just a smell. It’s toxic,” she said. “It’s in our water; it burns your eyes, and it’s conveniently at its worst at night or on the weekends when no officials can be reached.”

Irene Bryant, owner of Blocks and Tots Daycare, said the 30 children who attend her daycare can no longer go outside to play.

“The stink is so bad that we can’t take them out,” Bryant said. “These children are missing out on exercise, sunshine and just the experience of being a child. It even smells inside the daycare, and personally, it makes me sick. I know parents understand, but still, it’s a business and you don’t want people to open your doors to that terrible smell.”

Clara Curtis, president of Preserve Our Environment for Tomorrow, said citizens have three demands of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during its efforts to clean up the 13 million gallons of wastewater that remain at the Twin Street facility.

Curtis said residents are calling for: an immediate investigation by the governor and attorney general into the lack of oversight by ADEM, a facility for health assessment of the damage caused by REEF, and a 24/7 EPA representative on site to advise citizens during the cleanup process.

“Why would I ask for all of this?” she said. “Simply because, for two weeks, EPA came in here, pulled the tarps off, said everything was stabilized and left, and we’ve been sick for two weeks.”

EPA became involved with REEF about two weeks ago when ADEM asked for federal assistance to address gas buildup and oily leakage at the site. Currently, EPA is developing a plan to treat and remove the wastewater and mitigate any other hazards that may be present.

In response to citizens concerns, EPA has scheduled a community meeting for Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. at the J. Craig Smith Community Center. EPA representatives will be present to discuss the “ongoing and future activities, next steps and address the issues and concerns of the Sylacauga community,” said an EPA flyer provided at the rally.

Residents at the rally said they hope for a swift cleanup, but some remain doubtful that it will happen.

“There comes a time when there’s too much government,” Wallace said. “Then they come in and they don’t act. It makes the old 60s hippie come out in me. You just want to get radical.”

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© 2012