A Foul Smell in Eight Mile, Alabama
How fair housing laws can advance environmental justice and racial equity.
Research & Commentary
June 05, 2019
by Dedrick Asante-Muhammad Tracy McCracken Elizabeth Beauchamp
In 2008, a Mobile Gas facility in Eight Mile, Alabama, leaked mercaptan, a chemical used with methane to produce a sulfur-like smell to detect gas leaks. Mercaptan can cause central nervous system damage after long-term or high-dose exposure.
In 2011, the residents of Eight Mile once again complained of an overwhelming smell of mercaptan, in addition to lingering health issues. The gas company claimed to have solved the leak in 2010; however, residents said the chemical’s odor was still in the air and their health issues continued to worsen over time.
Flash forward four years to 2015, when Sempra Energy – which acquired Mobile Gas a few months after the 2008 leak in Eight Mile – had a gas and mercaptan leak at a natural gas storage well in Porter Ranch, California. Porter Ranch is a majority white community and only 1.8 percent of its residents are African American. Sempra Energy paid $50 million to relocate residents of Porter Ranch, while it spent and did little to help the residents of Eight Mile. The main differences between the residents of Eight Mile and Porter Ranch? Race and socioeconomic status.
Residents of Eight Mile, Alabama
The pursuit of safe and equitable housing, and its overlap with environmental justice issues, underscores some of the deeply-rooted problems within the racial wealth divide. Unsafe living conditions and unfair treatment due to race are side effects of a persistent wealth gap.
Eight Mile’s zip code is home to approximately 4,500 residents – primarily working-class families. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93 percent of the zip code is African American with a median income of $21,597. In addition, 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. This is high even for the state of Alabama, where the median income is $46,472 and 18 percent of families live below the poverty line.
Some residents were able to move away from Eight Mile after the leaks, but most stayed. Some sought legal action against the gas company, and some signed away their rights to sue for health issues. But most Eight Mile residents have not filed any action against the gas companies to date.
While investigating the claims of residents in Eight Mile, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) discovered that an all-electric property had a gas leak along with the continued mercaptan issue. The homeowner had complained about a strong gas odor beginning in 2012. It took the gas company four years to cap a gas pipe on the property.
In October 2017, NCRC and the South Alabama Center for Fair Housing filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against Mobile Gas, Sempra Energy and Spire Energy, which purchased Mobile Gas in 2016. HUD has yet to rule on the complaint.
While we await a ruling from HUD, NCRC and the South Alabama Center for Fair Housing are evaluating other legal options to secure compensation for the people of Eight Mile.
The story of Eight Mile is an example of how fair housing testing and analysis can be used to address issues of environmental and racial justice as well as enforce fair housing laws and industrial safety rules. There must be a multifaceted approach to address contemporary racial socio-economic disenfranchisement of communities. Through fair housing testing and analysis, we can advance affordable housing to provide greater economic opportunity for low-wealth households.