As an environmental consultant, DiAne Gordon’s job was to collect samples from a treatment basin that stored water after it was used to wash out concrete mixtures from trucks. The samples were then to be sent to a lab and tested, analyzed for toxins in wastewater from her clients, mostly Mid-South concrete companies, including many located near Black, low-wealth communities.
The Clean Water Act requires such testing; the 50-year-old landmark legislation aims to protect waterways and the communities that depend on them.
The Environmental Protection Agency describes the water produced by concrete companies as a corrosive, dense liquid containing toxic metals. The EPA uses pH to measure its chemical potential, and the concrete wastewater is high on the scale with a value of 12. To put that in perspective, a strong chemical cleaner like Drano has a pH of 13.5, and humans have a pH of about 7.
But for three years, Gordon didn’t do her job. She was faking the tests and submitting fabricated lab reports. In September, a U.S. District Court Judge sentenced the former chief executive officer and co-owner of Environmental Compliance and Testing to serve 36 months in prison and pay more than $200,000 in restitution.
“Without accurate test results and reporting of those results, the Clean Water Act will not work,” said U.S. Attorney Joseph C. Murphy Jr. for the Western District of Tennessee. “Because honest reporting of this data is so important to the functioning of the Act, our office will vigorously prosecute individuals who falsely report test results.”
Following Gordon’s prosecution, the EPA announced that, nationally, it had significantly reduced noncompliance with Clean Water Act permits this year. The agency said it has accurate data for 96% of its permitted facilities across the country.
That’s a high rate, but it still leaves 4% of businesses tracked in violation with permits. And according to observers for Memphis, Gordon’s crimes reveal that a crack in proactive enforcement of the Clean Water Act can leave vulnerable communities facing environmental inequities.
Living near a concrete plant
In this case, that disparity can be felt by people who are on the periphery of historically Black Soulsville in South Memphis — a corner of the city that experiences disproportionate pollution compared to other neighborhoods. There, the South Memphis Alliance formed to provide services to make up for what has long been underserved by people in power.
“Our organization supports people in foster care and people transitioning out of that system,” said SMA Advocate Outreach Specialist Kevin Bland. The organization specifically helps those in their teenage years through young adulthood. “We are trying to set them up for the future and help them with their needs.”
That goal is why the organization has a laundromat on the corner of South Bellevue and Walker Avenue. While people wait for their laundry to dry, they get access to social services. From the coin-operated machines, they have watched the cement trucks and their spinning drums go by for years. Their pocket of South Memphis is zoned for industrial use, which allows operations for businesses such as Memphis Ready Mix — Gordon’s biggest client.
Memphis Ready Mix operates on a model where they deliver concrete mix to construction sites ready to be poured — hence their name. But that mix still must be created somewhere, like at a plant behind SMA’s center.
Living near such facilities brings exposure to a high level of harmful pollution comparable with that of a congested freeway.
Concrete companies typically heat a mixture of limestone and clay with various metals to produce concrete. The process emits these materials and metals, like dust, into the air. This is called particulate matter pollution. It’s linked to serious health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and cancer, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation doesn’t monitor air quality at places like Memphis Ready Mix, but it does try to regulate particulate matter through permitting under the Clean Water Act.
Water used during the concrete production process is washed out as a toxic mixture into basins for treatment before it is discharged into city sewers. When there is a lapse in reporting, like under Gordon’s watch, TDEC doesn’t know if polluted water was cleaned. This means toxic wastewater could have been accumulating in these small basins within walking distance of people’s homes. According to the EPA, such basins can overflow during heavy rain. If that water were to reach lawns, grassy areas or gardens, it can seep into the soil, affecting plant growth and contaminating groundwater.
A 2017 report from TDEC shows Memphis Ready Mix generally in compliance. During a site visit, Gordon told inspectors specific details about her methods, such as testing her water samples with a digital meter immediately after collection and then keeping them in a cooler for transport to a contracted lab for testing.
The falsehood became evident to TDEC a couple of years later when they issued a notice of violation to Memphis Ready Mix that showed levels of pH exceeding the safe ranges for aquatic life. The report also noted indications of sediment-laden water flowing into a nearby storm drain.
When toxic wastewater goes down the drain
“People will assume concrete is not harmful, because it is everywhere,” said Shirley Clark, a professor of Environmental Engineering at PennState, who is known internationally for her studies on concrete production and its effects on infrastructure.
Treating this wastewater before it gets into Memphis’ stormwater system is crucial. Clark said the caustic nature of concrete mixtures can damage sewer pipes, and, in some cases, it can harden in the drain.
But the problem doesn’t easily go away once in streams or rivers because of how the particulate matter interacts with water.
Through the interaction, the pH of the water raises and can potentially release cement, a fine powder, she said, “… and it’s hard to keep that down. It’s easy to get into the air and in the water. It will also travel far because it doesn’t settle in water easily.”
The sewer near Memphis Ready Mix eventually drains into Cane Creek and flows behind a high school, through parks and several residential areas.
Clark said to imagine taking a clear water bottle, adding this fine powder and shaking it up. The water will become cloudy, but those particles won’t sink or surface. If drained into waterways like Cane Creek, it exacerbates existing pollution. Cane Creek is already contaminated by industries and their legacy of dumping chemicals. And according to the EPA, a high pH can increase the toxicity of pollutants already in the water.
Many areas of the creek are fenced, but it has a history of overflowing during flooding events. It’s most prone to flooding as it meets the Noncannah River, where water has backed up to Interstate 240. People exposed to this floodwater — in the streets, in their cars, or their homes — can experience various health issues, ranging from skin rashes to gastrointestinal illnesses.
As climate change makes rainfall more intense with bursts of storms, Memphis’ existing problems with flash flooding and dirty water could worsen. That’s why it’s important to test at the source.
Rethinking data collection
After learning about Gordon’s fraudulent sampling, Memphis Ready Mix hired a new consultant who filed a 133-page report that addresses how they corrected their violations and their plans to lower pH. Their new consultant, Christopher Grow, wrote that they want to eventually become a zero-discharge facility.
MLK50: Journalism through Justice repeatedly reached out to Memphis Ready Mix and their parent company Buzzi Unicem for comment. Buzzi Unicem confirmed receipt of our questions but did not provide answers.
As part of Gordon’s sentencing, the U.S. Court for the Western District of Tennessee ordered her to pay nearly $46,000 in restitution to Memphis Ready Mix, according to her plea deal. The new president of her company, Environmental Compliance and Testing, Mike Tooley, said that Gordon had complete autonomy over her clients at the firm. He said she was likely motivated by making money through doing little work.
“It was an unbelievably horrific thing to happen,” said Tooley. “We strive to do everything the right way and keep our clients protected. Now, we’re having to deal with all the fallout of it, which is massive.”
That data is felt by government agencies and communities who are now asking: How do we keep this from happening again?
Abre’ Conner, environmental climate and justice director for NAACP, has repeatedly watched environmental racism unfold across the country, where people aren’t getting their fundamental needs like having safe drinking water, clean air and uncontaminated soil. Often, little or missing data led to those situations.
“This is the kind of theme that landed people in situations like in Flint, and similarly in Jackson. People were relying on the data, they were relying on what they were hearing,” said Conner, who is currently responding to the water crisis in Mississippi’s capital. “Folks actually on the ground who are suffering from whatever the issue is, they don’t have any other real way to double check.”
When compliance is a core component of an environmental statute, such as the Clean Water Act, more oversight is needed ahead of the data collection process, said Conner. Her team has pushed for federal agencies to help vet environmental consultants and other technical service providers before they start working in communities, especially those disproportionately experiencing industrial pollution.
Through funding in laws such as the Inflation Recovery Act, Conner said that federal agencies like the EPA could further reimagine data collection with efforts through community science. That’s when government agencies train residents to collect samples around their homes, from water in creeks or soil in gardens. Usually, the samples are then sent to an agency scientist who oversees lab testing and results.
“Whether it’s water testing or soil testing, it’s important to have community-led evidence gathering,” said Conner. “It takes away some of the onus on people who are getting paid to potentially offer a solution and it allows for it to really be about what the community needs.”
Ashli Blow is a freelance writer who covers environmental science and policy. Her stories range from the lives of people in urban watersheds to those who roam the wilderness. She was raised in Memphis and produced breaking news at WMC Action News 5. She has now been working in journalism and strategic communications for nearly 10 years. Ashli lives in Seattle and is a graduate student at the University of Washington, studying climate policy.
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