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Monday numbers: A closer look at where hazardous waste sites in NC are located

There are more than 2,000 known hazardous waste sites in North Carolina, and more than 10% of them lie within a flood plain. These flood-prone waste sites presents particular threats to nearby residents and ecosystems because the rush of water can displace the contamination, sending it downstream, into flooded homes and neighborhoods, and even private drinking water wells.

Statewide there are 244 known hazardous waste [1] sites lying within 100-year flood plains, where the chance of flooding is 1% in a year, according to a state environmental database. There are another 72 hazardous waste sites in the 500-year flood plain, where there is a 0.2% chance of flooding in a year. Even 500-year floods are becoming more common, with two occurring in 2018. Neighborhoods that didn’t flood, now do. [2]

Because of climate change, severe flooding is becoming more frequent in North Carolina — even without hurricanes. Last year was the second-wettest in North Carolina on record, according to the State Climate Office [3]. (Last November, nine inches of rain fell in 48 hours in Rocky Mount, and widespread flooding occurred throughout the state [4].)

Yet, maps are only representations. “Ground truth” tells a different story. In Rocky Mount, an old unlined city dump sits at the end of Corbett Drive near the Tar River; although federal maps don’t show the dump in a flood plain — and so it was excluded from the state’s database of flood prone waste sites — a visit to that neighborhood after heavy rain shows that less than a block away, homes and streets routinely are inundated. The groundwater beneath the dump is likely moving, carried by flood waters. The neighborhood is 100% Black.

Ellison Drive in Rocky Mount after a heavy rain last summer. An unlined dump is a few hundred feet away. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Such is the legacy of environmental racism. Historical — and even current — housing discrimination has shunted communities of color into low-lying areas, where land is less desirable. Meanwhile, polluters have long targeted low-income neighborhoods and communities of color for their waste. Chemical dumps, Superfund sites, unlined landfills: Companies put their hazardous waste in areas that had the least political, social and economic power.

Combine rising water and pollution, and these communities face double jeopardy.

Today we look at the number of hazardous waste sites in North Carolina and where they are located, according to state records:

129inactive hazardous waste sites [6]; these are facilities that are no longer operating but where contamination has been left behind
unlined landfills [7] built before 1983
11 — sites with dry cleaning contamination
9 — sites with hazardous waste whose cleanups are under a federal program [8], such as Superfund or the Department of Defense

The 244 sites are located in 194 census blocks throughout the state. Some census blocks contain multiple contaminated sites, which means residents in these areas are burdened with additional pollution sources.

For example, Wilmington, in New Hanover County, has a census block with seven sites. In Robeson County, a census block in Lumberton has four sites. Ninety percent of the people who live in that census block are from communities of color; 66% of residents are low-income.

14 — number of census blocks that have two sites
4 —  census blocks with three sites
3 —  with four sites
2 — with five sites
1 — with seven sites

Most of the state’s hazardous waste sites that lie within a flood plain are in communities of color and/or low-income neighborhoods. These figures of low-income residents are broken out by census block:

24 — number of facilities where 25% to 32% of residents are low-income
62 —  of facilities where 33% to 49% of residents are low-income
101 — of facilities where 50% to 74% of residents are low-income
24 — of facilities where more than 75% of residents are low-income
211 — total number of facilities that are located in low-income census blocks, or 86%

These figures are broken out by census block and percentage of people who are Black, Latinx, American Indian and/or Asian. One census block in Fayetteville, in Cumberland County and adjacent to the Cape Fear River, is composed of 100% persons of color,  77% of whom are low-income.

19 — number of facilities where 25% to 32% of residents are from communities of color
39 — number of facilities where 33% to 49% of residents are from communities of color
62 — number of facilities where 50% to 74% of residents are from communities of color
45 — number of facilities where 75% to 100% of residents are from communities of color
165 — total number of facilities that are located in predominantly communities of color, or 67%

Many communities with these flood-prone hazardous waste facilities are both low-income and neighborhoods of color

— number of facilities where more than a third of residents are low-income and from a community of color, or 54%

Below is a list ordered by county of all hazardous waste sites that lie within 100-year flood plains, compiled from a state environmental database. Two points to keep in mind: This is not an exhaustive list of all hazardous sites in North Carolina. Census blocks can also contain other non-hazardous pollution sources.

To see demographic and health data and other information about these sites, go to the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Community Mapping System [9]. You can search by address, county and Zip code.