A Fairfax County whiskey distillery that announced plans last summer to begin producing alcohol for auto fuel could be shut down if the county government concludes it is the cause of a mysterious mold that blankets the area surrounding the plant.
"Here we are trying to do something to help somebody, and we're being treated like a common criminal," said John B. Adams, vice president of the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Reston. The firm denies it is responsible for the problems its neighbors complain about.
At the center of the dispute is a sooty black mold that grows on distillery buildings and on homes and fences downwind of the plant.
Residents of about 60 houses adjoining the distillery claim that Bowman's emissions give the mold spores a medium in which to thrive. They say the mold is killing their trees. And physicians say it can cause serious respiratory ailments, particularly in children, and can complicate the medical problems of the chronically ill.
Most observers agree that Bowman's plans for converting some of its operations to production grain alcohol to mix with gasoline probably would not increase emissions. But the plant's petition asking the county for permission to make the gasohol ingredient offered residents an opportunity to sound off about a problem they say has been bothering them for at least two years.
As a result of the uproar, Supervisor Martha V. Pennino (D-Centreville) says, the county has no choice but to conduct an extensive study of the mold and close the plant if necessary.
Pennino said that circumstantial evidence indicates the mold originates at the distillery, which is known for its Virginia Gentleman bourbon.
"If it can be shown that the mold is caused by the distillery, then the board will have to require the distillery to take rememdial action," she said. "If those actions cannot be taken, we have a right to close down operations."
Throughout the controversy, spokesmen for Bowman have maintained that their operation, which produced 6,000 barrels of Virginia Gentleman and Fairfax bourban last year, has done nothing to encourage the mold.
"That stuff grows all over the county," said A. Smith Bowman, chairman of the company's board of directors. "It's caused by damp weather. We've been operating on this site since 1935, and we've never had any questions about it until last summer."
The Fairfax supervisors are expected to give their approval today to Bowman's plan to produce up to one million gallons of ethyl (grain) alcohol a year. The approval would be coupled with a requirement that an epidemiological investigation be conducted to determine where the mold comes from and whether it constitutes a health hazard.
But there are indications the company is having second thoughts about the ethanol venture. According to Adams, the Bowman board has not even a final go-ehead to the firm's production plans.
If the Reston firm does produce ethyl alcohol, it would sell it to gasoline distributors who would mix one part alcohol with ten parts gasoline to make gasohol. Energy conservationists have been promoting gasohol as a means of stretching the nation's limited gasoline supplies. If it were available in large quantities, the grain-based fuel component could reduce gasoline comsumption by nearly 10 percent.
According to spokesmen for federal regulatory agencies, the Reston mold problem appears to be unique.
"We've looked at distilleries and gasohol operations around the country, and we've never had any complaints about mold," said Larry O'Neil of the Environmental Protection Agency.
And Brad Byer of the Department of Energy said, "In all the studies we've done on alcohol fuel, this question hasn't arisen."
Their comments, however, offer littled comfort to Delphine Miceli, who lives in a town house in the Golf View subdivision that adjoins the Bowman property. Black, powdery mold grows up to a quarter-inch thick on her wooden fence, her trees and the brick exterior of her home.
A picnic table next to her back door bears black tinge over its white enamel paint, despite frequent scrubbings with bleach.
Forty feet away, a cluster of Bowman warehouses wear thick whiskers of black mold on their roofs and walls.
"I don't want to be an alarmist about this and say I'm staying awake night worrying," said Miceli, whose three children play almost daily in the area where the mold grows thickest. "But if your trees are dying, you start to wonder what kind of effect this has on humans."
Several pediatricians who treat children in the Reston area have called for controls on the distillery's emissions, arguing that the escaping alcohol vapors and grain particles are encouraging the mold's growth.
According to Dr. Anthony Di Paola, four of the five molds indentified at the distillery site -- alternaria, clads porium, chrysosproium and mucor -- have been associated with nasal and asthmatic allergies. The abundance of the mold, he said, could result in significant problems for allergy sufferers and could lead to recurrent infections and possible hearing loss.
"There is no question in my mind that it's a health hazard and ought to be corrected," Di Paola said. Anyone with a history of allergy who moved to the area would be "doing himself a tremendous disservices and even asking for trouble," he said.
A recent county health department study found no evidence tracing the mold to the distillery and speculated it might be caused by unique environmental conditions at the damp, low-lying site. But critics point out that the county did not exonerate the d istillery or explain why the mold seems more abundant on distillery buildings and surfaces downwind which face the Bowman plant.
"We're not trying to shut the place down," said Sheilah Skiles, the mother of two pre-school children. "We just want to get a good study that will answer all our questions.
"We want to make sure that we're safe."