The $1 million mystery: The Senate budget gives a low-risk hazardous waste site a major windfall — at the expense of hundreds of critical projects

The $1 million mystery: The Senate budget gives a low-risk hazardous waste site a major windfall — at the expense of hundreds of critical projects

- in Environment
The 34-acre former Phoenix Recycling facility in Havelock received a $1 million gift in the Senate budget — even though there are hundreds of more contaminated, high-risk waste sites in the state. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
O ff a stub of Pine Grove Road behind the West End fire station in Havelock, an old sand mine turned wayward recycling facility has become an environmental and civic albatross. The 34-acre former Phoenix Recycling site contains an assortment of wood, metal, plastic and cardboard — plus construction and demolition detritus that has been illegally dumped there since the company closed and declared bankruptcy in 2000.

Phoenix is one of more than 3,000 inactive hazardous sites that the state has catalogued in North Carolina. Although labeled “inactive,” most of these locations are still quite active, in that they continue to pollute. But because of their environmental histories and financial complexities, these sites are essentially environmental vagabonds. They have nowhere else to land but NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch. That branch oversees their cleanup and enforcement — albeit with too little funding each year to make a noticeable dent in the list.

Although Phoenix’s northern rim borders Tucker Creek Middle School and a residential neighborhood, there are much worse places on the inactive hazardous  list: The old Cinderella Knitting Mill in Kings Mountain, which is leaking contaminants into homes across the street and possibly infiltrating a nearby park. The former E.H. Glass dump in northeast Greensboro, adjacent to an after-school program at Fresh Start Ministries. Tex-Fi Industries in Fayetteville, whose pollutants of chlorinated solvents have threatened the city’s drinking water.

In fact, while a burden for the City of Havelock, Phoenix has never appeared on the state’s imminent hazard list of inactive waste sites. Nor is it considered high-risk, based on DEQ’s site scoring system. And yet a provision in the recent Senate budget transfers $1 million from a cash-strapped fund at DEQ and dictates that it be used for Phoenix, a low environmental priority.

From the Senate budget

The pot of money, the pre-regulatory landfill fund, is supposed to address contamination at old unlined dumps — 669 at last count — that were built before 1983, when there were less stringent solid waste laws. But Phoenix, which operated from 1993 to 2000, is not a dump by the legal definition, and not part of that fund. Instead it’s classified as an Inactive Hazardous Waste site, which has its own paltry revenue source — $400,000 annually from the legislature.

“If $1 million is transferred out of the pre-regulatory fund [to Phoenix], other projects will be delayed,” said Michael Scott, chief of DEQ’s Division of Waste Management.

And by siphoning money from the landfill fund, Phoenix is depriving hundreds of projects, actually, of remediation, because both the pre-regulatory landfill and inactive hazardous waste funds are so financially depleted.

Since these programs are chronically underfunded by the legislature, cleanups are only incremental — well testing one year, vapors the next — delaying even partial remediation for as long as a decade. For example, since 2011, only seven of the 669 landfills have been designated as needing no further action. And new inactive hazardous waste sites are added to the list every year. At this rate, DEQ will never catch up.

Sen. Norman Sanderson’s district includes Carteret, Pamlico and Craven counties, the latter of which is home to Havelock, where he once owned a child care center. Sanderson sits on two key senate committees that have the power to influence environmental funding: Appropriations/Base Budget and Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources, of which he is co-chair.

Sanderson did not respond to emails and calls seeking comment, so it’s unclear if he wielded any influence on the appropriation. And even if he — or any other legislator — did insert this pet project into the budget, that wouldn’t be uncommon. But in this case, the stakes are higher. Someone pulled strings somewhere to get a million dollars for Phoenix, at the expense of other more urgent needs.

The EH Glass dump on Nealtown Road in Greensboro operated from 1965 to 1973, before there were regulations requiring liners and restricting what could be disposed there. Tons of Vicks cold medicine and other materials were dumped at the 23-acre site, contaminating groundwater, sediment and surface water on the property. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
R obert Coleman started the Phoenix Recycling business in 1993. But he apparently ran the operation poorly, because in 2000, the Division of Waste Management closed it for failing to meet recycling standards. The site, which was outside the city limits, lay dormant for nearly a decade.

Then in 2009, the city of Havelock became interested in buying the Phoenix acreage in hopes of redeveloping it as a park or selling the land for residential development. To find out what contaminants were lurking underground, the city eventually applied for, and received, a $400,000 brownfields grant from the EPA to assess hazardous waste sites; $120,000 of that money went to Phoenix, according to local media reports; the rest was earmarked to study other polluted areas in the city.

The presence of these materials “can be easily managed,” Darin McClure of Mid-Atlantic Associates, which was managing the brownfields grant on behalf of the city told the Havelock News. “That’s not an impediment to development.”

Using some of the EPA brownfield grant, the city hired Rivers & Associates to develop plans for a park or a housing development.

In 2013, the state spent $3,200 to evaluate the contamination at Phoenix. Regulators found arsenic, chromium and manganese tested above state groundwater standards, but drinking water wells in the area all tested clean. Additional testing of arsenic and metals soil, indicated no off-property migration is expected to occur, according to DEQ records.

In 2015, the city agreed to buy the property for $27,500; the commissioners voted to annex the land into the city limits last year. According to meeting minutes, there was no public comment.

Update: 3:01 pm: Laruen Wargo, communications coordinator for the City of Havelock, said in an email that the city has made its plans known to a “wide range of legislators.” Several factors affected the timing of the proposed funding request, Wargo said, including road construction by the state Department of Transportation that could occur across part of the site. In addition, there is “the high probability of a base realignment and closure processing being conducted by the federal government, which will take into consideration environmental issues near military installations.”

That argument doesn’t align with several facts about the relationship between Phoenix and the Cherry Point Marine Corps Station. First, site is nearly five miles from Cherry Point. And the base itself is a Superfund site because of contaminated groundwater, soil, sediment and surface water resulting from activities there.

Even within Craven County, Phoenix is small potatoes. The county has 29 inactive hazardous waste sites, six of which DEQ has designated as high-priority. A new site was even discovered last year in Vanceboro. Craven County also has eight pre-regulatory landfills, four of them in Havelock, whose funds would presumably be further drained by the $1 million to Phoenix.

The former Cinderella Knitting Mills on South Mitchell Street in Kings Mountain is on the state’s list of imminent hazard sites. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
O ne million dollars is both a lot of money and very little. It’s a lot in the context of the revenue the landfill fund receives each year — about $9 million generated by a portion of the state’s solid waste tax. It’s also a lot when you consider that 11 percent of that total would be skimmed from the landfill fund for Phoenix.

But $1 million is paltry in the context of what it can buy. The Inactive Waste Fund’s annual $400,000 appropriation  is quickly consumed by the enormous backlog. For example, last year, the Inactive Waste Fund spent $524,000 on 40 projects. The amounts ranged from as little as $368 to evaluate the potential for hazardous dry cleaning vapors to enter homes in Robeson County, to $134,093 for the Lytle Cove Road project in Buncombe County. That undertaking required soil, vapor and groundwater and drinking water well sampling to find the source of the contamination, as well as the installation of a treatment system on one well.

If the Phoenix appropriation survives the House budget, it will get nearly twice the amount spent on 40 projects.

C leanup costs are projected to rise, both for the landfills and the inactive waste sites. The least expensive parts of these investigations — assessments — are being completed.  Now, said Scott of DEQ, expenditures are expected to increase as sites move to remedial action: Hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, could be spent at these sites to clean them up.

The total cost to clean up the 314 highest-risk orphan sites — so-called because their owners can’t be found or have gone bankrupt — exceeds $210 million. Provided no new sites are added, at the current rate of funding — $400,000 annually — it would take 525 years to close the cases. But Phoenix will be finished.

About the author

Lisa Sorg, Environmental Reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in July 2016. She covers environmental issues, including social justice, pollution, climate change and energy policy. Before joining the project, Lisa was the editor and an investigative reporter for INDY Week, covering the environment, housing and city government. She has been a journalist for 22 years, working at magazines, daily newspapers, digital media outlets and alternative newsweeklies.
[email protected]