By Margaret Moffett Banks
Nearly 2,000 hazardous waste sites dot North Carolina’s landscape.
Hundreds of them are in the Triad.
The 1,906 sites statewide hold the toxic remnants of old factories or chemicals deliberately dumped into the ground.
All pose some sort of health risk.
The N.C. Division of Waste Management estimates it would need nearly $209 million to clean up just the 282 sites it believes are the most hazardous — roughly 9 percent of the total.
The state’s budget provides just $400,000 a year.
What’s worse, the state continually adds new sites to the list — 35 during 2012-13 alone.
It cleaned up only 18 during that period.
In addition, there are 677 old landfills that need cleaning up, too. Those cleanups are funded from a different pool of money, but the outcome is the same.
That combination — a crippling need for cleanup and a lack of money to do so — creates a never-ending cycle for state officials, who must measure public health concerns against fiscal reality.
“No,” said division spokeswoman Cathy Akroyd, when asked if the number of hazardous sites ever would drop to zero.
“That will not be possible under the current funding level.”
The state has other sources of money to pay for these cleanup projects.
In some cases, the company or people who created the problem must remove them.
But that only works if the state can find the “responsible parties.”
Money from the federal government also supplements some of the state’s work.
Another source of money: environmental claims against bankrupt companies, which brought in $519,500 last year.
But budget writers never know how much those claims will bring.
And the division must use the money as outlined in the bankruptcy cases, which may or may not be a high priority.
That leaves health officials with no wiggle room to use the money for sites with the greatest health risks, which are put on the state’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Priority List.
The list names 460-some sites, including those 282 deemed the most hazardous.
Those sites pose an “immediate risk to public health and the environment,” Akroyd said.
People may be drinking contaminated water, living on contaminated soil or discovering hazardous vapors in nearby buildings, she said.
“The contamination can be a very significant health risk,” Akroyd said. “The sites with immediate risks are attended to as soon as we know about them.”
An example: Ulah Battery in Asheboro is ninth on the list, making it the highest-ranked of those sites from the Triad.
Several years ago, officials found a large battery dump in a residential neighborhood on Dinah Road. The batteries contain lead, which was leaching into the soil.
It’s tragic that the state finds the need to set priorities for these sites, said Jim Warren, the executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, a nonprofit organization that advocates for stricter laws against polluters.
All of the problems are critical, Warren said.
“There are so many sites and so many leaks and so many pathways to human exposure it’s hard for anyone to say with a straight face that this is not important,” he said.
“I don’t think its acceptable for the state to subordinate this issue.”