By Cullen Browder
Raleigh, N.C. — When 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River in February, it grabbed national headlines and raised the ire of environmentalists.
But by sheer numbers, the 14 coal ash ponds spread across North Carolina pale in comparison to the nearly 3,000 various waste sites across the state. That includes decommissioned industrial facilities, abandoned dry cleaners and old landfills.
Despite the sometimes active threats to water or air, many of these sites take years or decades to clean up, if they’re cleaned up at all. And the fund to clear out the contamination can’t keep up.
Hazardous sites mean real victims
Laura Drey knows the process all too well.
Pollution left behind by an old dry cleaner that closed up shop 40 years ago chased her from her home in Durham.
“I found out the house, the indoor air, the soil were all contaminated,” Drey said.
The site was first admitted into the program established by the Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act in 2006. But despite efforts to remove tainted soil and clean groundwater, problems still exist.
A report submitted in early May shows the cleanup process led to the emission of unacceptable levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, a chemical known to cause cancer.
There’s now a ventilation system attached to Drey’s home to remove the toxic vapors.
While work is under way at the site, that’s not the case for thousands of others across the state.
According the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, there are 546 priority waste sites in the state on its larger list of about 1,900. That doesn’t include 1,358 other sites with dry cleaning contamination and landfills that predate the permitting process.
Jim Warren is the executive director of NC WARN, an environmental watchdog group. It got its start following one of the highest-profile environmental messes in state history – when the Ward Transformer company contaminated 60,000 tons of dirt with cancer-causing chemicals called PCBs.
There are still “no fishing” signs along the waterways near the old site.
At this site and others, the EPA stepped in to help with the cleanup.
“The state has never had the adequate resources to regulate and control the polluters,” Warren said.
A problem of money
Two years after tainted private wells were found along Wake County’s Stony Hill Road, there’s been no effort to fix contamination of the drinking water. Residents have now been moved to a community well.
Cathy Akroyd, a DENR spokesperson, said homes and schools with documented drinking water, air or soil contamination get top priority for cleanup.
But she said “a good number” of hazardous sites may sit untouched for years.
That’s the case at two sites in Cumberland County. Monsanto and DuPont used to have facilities along Cedar Creek Road. Both sites are ranked in the top-25 on the state’s priority list.
Records show they were polluted by the neighboring Wellman Industries. Although it was on the state’s radar dating back to 1983, there’s still been no work to clean up the mess.
Akroyd said it comes down to a lack of resources.
“In a perfect world and a perfect unending amount of money, what we would want to do is get to every site on that list and do whatever it needs from the smallest to the highest,” Akroyd said. “That’s not possible at all.”
In an annual report to the General Assembly, the estimated cost of cleaning up the 330 sites where a responsible owner can’t be found approaches $250 million. But in the last fiscal year, the fund to pay for waste clean up brought in only $430,000.
A the end of the year, the effective cash balance was zero.
“It’s a swirling mess, frankly,” Warren said. “It’s a mess in terms of pollution and health and it’s a mess in terms of the democratic process.”
With dozens of new sites added to the inactive hazardous waste list each year, and no real push to give DENR more money and more power to crack down on polluters, the number of stories like Drey’s will grow as well.
“It continues to be a concern,” Drey said. “Not just for this site but for the number of sites across the state and the numbers have in the state gone up.”
Read more and see the video coverage here.