Military, private owner have allowed toxic contaminants to fester, avoided penalties while residents bear environmental burden
This is the first of a two-part story about hazardous contamination at a former missile plant in Burlington that is threatening a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood. Part 2 runs tomorrow. You can also read this story as a pdf file and view the source documents, which are linked within the text.
3,727 words, 17-minute read
T attooed in ivy, bound in chain-link fence, Building 16 casts an ominous three-story shadow over several homes along Hilton Road. The window blinds are torn, as if it were sleeping with one eye open.
This relic of the Cold War is among two dozen buildings sprawled across the 22-acre Tarheel Army Missile Plant in East Burlington. Here, in the 1950s and ’60s, Western Electric conducted top-secret research on behalf of the military.
That research, developing sophisticated guidance systems for Nike missiles, required workers to handle hazardous chemicals. Over time, those chemicals spilled and seeped and leaked. They were poured down sinks and dumped into storm drains.
Fifty years since the military mothballed the Nike missile program, the plant, once a source of civic pride for the city, is now a toxic disgrace.
Cyanide, caustics, acids, radioactive materials, asbestos, lead, chromium, PCBs, gasoline, diesel fuel and more — have been detected throughout the property, according to state records.
Hazardous solvents have contaminated the soil, air and groundwater at the plant. They have penetrated the earth, crept beneath nearby homes and infiltrated a neighborhood stream, which eventually feeds the Haw River. That watershed provides drinking water for more than a half million people downstream in and near Pittsboro, Chapel Hill, Cary and Durham.
More than 15,000 pages of government documents and a dozen interviews reveal an exasperating story. It is one of incompetence, indifference and inertia by the military, as well as private owners of the property: a firm whose owners earned their fortune in Amway, an Alabama company that included a mid-level NASCAR driver, and an orthotic shoe salesman from Chapel Hill with a criminal record.
“They’ve done nothing, nothing,” said David Spruill, who has lived just 30 feet behind Building 16 since 1993.
Since the mid-1990s, the military has spent $2 million on cleaning up the facility, but untold amounts of contaminants remain. The Army pleaded with the EPA to exclude the property from the Superfund program — which contains some of the most toxic sites in the U.S. — so that the plant could be cleaned up more quickly.
But a full cleanup never happened. A permanent solution has been stalled by funding shortfalls, bureaucracy, contractor disputes, failed treatment systems – and a lack of attention.
Nor was the plant one of the Army’s “priority remediation sites,” said Laura Leonard, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which is overseeing the military’s cleanup.
Despite the rampant contamination, neither the state nor the EPA has fined anyone responsible.
The environmental costs of this inaction have been borne by a predominantly Black, Latinx and Indigenous neighborhood. The plant abuts six duplexes and two single-family homes. Another half dozen duplexes face the facility. At least six more households lie within the contamination path.
Nonetheless, only in the last five years has DEQ pushed the military to hasten the cleanup.
“This is what environmental justice looks like,” said State Rep. Ricky Hurtado, whose district includes East Burlington.
The environmental and legal issues at the plant are complex. The federal government sold the facility in 2004, under a program approved by Congress that allows the transfer of contaminated property to private owners. In Burlington, the U.S. Army Environmental Command remains liable for cleaning up hazards below ground; private owners are responsible for removing contaminants in the buildings and redeveloping the property.
Even in private hands, though, the plant has foundered. Turnover in ownership has created “some logistical and access challenges,” for a cleanup, said Cathy Kropp, environmental public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Environmental Command, based at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
The delays and chronic neglect threaten the neighborhood and the general public. In 2015, one property owner, who knew of the plant’s unsafe conditions, nonetheless hosted a haunted house for kids on Halloween.
Vandalism, coupled with the partial collapse of several buildings prompted state health officials in 2017 to declare the plant “an urgent public health hazard.” Conditions deteriorated to the point that two years later, the state again warned that the site had become a “fire and a safety hazard.”
The current property owner, David Tsui, demolished contaminated parts of the plant without the proper permits, potentially releasing contaminants into the air. He has also ignored leaking barrels of hazardous waste, state records show.
In the past year, the Army has submitted to the state yet another revision of its environmental investigation, which is supposed to guide the clean up. But records show the information is still incomplete, the extent of the harm underestimated.
“The biggest cause for concern is how much more there is to learn about the environmental contamination,” Rep. Hurtado said. “The damage could be greater than we know.”
M ore than 12 miles above the Earth’s surface, at more than twice the speed of sound, a Nike Ajax missile could intercept and annihilate enemy aircraft as easily as swatting a fly.
During the Cold War, the Defense Department stationed thousands of these surface-to-air missiles near major U.S. cities and military installations “to destroy enemy planes which might escape the nation’s outer defenses,” reads a booklet distributed to Western Electric employees, “and come streaking at supersonic speeds to bomb our homes and factories.”
The military named the missiles after Greek gods — Ajax, Hercules, Zeus — to symbolize American dominance, strength and protection. While their brawn was impressive, Nikes, also called “birds” by the military, were “mostly brains.” And those brains were built in Burlington.
The former missile plant is one of 1,200 sites nationwide where the U.S. Army Environmental Command is responsible for removing contamination. In North Carolina, the plant is one of 37 “Formerly Used Defense Sites” — including old ammunition depots, landing strips, bombing ranges — that are in some phase of a cleanup.
Employees at the Burlington plant routinely used dangerous chemicals as part of their national defense work, even in tasks as apparently innocuous as painting or degreasing equipment. Much of the contamination occurred before there were federal and state environmental regulations, when industries thought little about dumping, storing, flushing and openly burning hazardous waste. This has resulted in a number of present-day hazards:
- The groundwater contains very high levels of solvents, known as PCE and TCE. Plant workers used them to remove grease from metal parts. Long-term exposure to PCE and TCE has been associated with several types of cancer, according to federal health officials. The solvents can harm the brain and nervous system; the kidneys, liver, and the immune system. PCE can also harm the developing fetus.
- A subterranean tunnel connects Building 16 with the most contaminated part of the property. Investigators call that section the “waste accumulation pad.” Here the solvents have seeped into the groundwater below the plant, then migrated into the neighborhood.
- Throughout the facility, the walls were covered in paint containing lead, a neurotoxin.
- PCBs, a known carcinogen, were stored in a building near the old Duke Power plant, which bordered two homes. The plant operated in the 1950s; most of it has since been torn down.
- The plant is rife with asbestos, at the time a commonly used fire retardant material that can cause several types of cancer and other fatal respiratory illnesses.
- Ten underground fuel tanks leaked thousands of gallons of petroleum into the groundwater and soil. Some tanks have been removed, state records show, but at least two remain below a grassy area next to a parking lot.
- Employees in Building 16 worked with radioactive isotopes to test guidance systems. These included Americium-241, which has a half-life of 430 years, and Cesium-137 – later used in nuclear reactors, like the one at the Chernobyl facility in the former Soviet Union that was the site of a disastrous nuclear accident in 1986.
Some of those isotopes were properly disposed of. Others, though, escaped their containers. In the 1970s, a worker poured Cesium-137 down a sink drain, according to state records, sending the radioactive material into Burlington’s sewer system.
In the 1980s, the Army claimed not to know about these hazards. In preparation for potentially selling the plant, military officials toured the site and interviewed several employees. They reviewed available documents, which were incomplete because the bulk of waste disposal records were missing or never kept.
Based on these findings, in 1980 and again in 1988, the military said a thorough site investigation was unnecessary. There were a few contaminated spots that needed attention, but reports from that time concluded there was “no potential for contaminant migration due to past operations” at the plant.
They were wrong.
I t hasn’t rained in a week, but David Spruill’s backyard feels spongy, like walking on an old mattress. Building 16 lies about the length of a school bus behind his house, half of a duplex that he has rented for 28 years.
Much of the neighborhood lies downhill from the plant in the path of contaminated groundwater. The most recent tests along Hilton Road showed the groundwater contained levels of PCE as much as 27 times the state standard. For TCE, the concentrations measured up to 13 times greater, state records show.
Spruill and the rest of the neighborhood are connected to the city water system. But he still doesn’t drink the water that flows from his tap. Nor does his mother, who lives catty-cornered across Hilton Road.
“It’s brown and it doesn’t taste right,” Spruill said.
Sometimes when it rains, he said, water flows from around and from the top of Building 16, and ponds in his backyard. Flooding has long been a problem on this end of Hilton Road, he said.
City of Burlington and DEQ officials said they were unaware of the issue.
But Spruill said he called the city. The solution: Workers applied lime on his yard.
“The rain flows through the gutters,” one Hilton Road resident said in Spanish, as her grandchildren played in the front yard. She pointed at Building 16, which in the mid-afternoon casts a three-story shadow over the backyard.
From the gutters, she said, rainwater pools in both front and backyards, the driveway, surrounding the family home. They are so concerned about what’s in the water that they grow tomatoes and chiles in raised beds, she said, “not in the ground.”
Down the street and directly behind two homes, Building 22 was used to store hazardous materials. Beneath it is the main exit wound for groundwater to leave the property and contaminate the neighborhood.
The groundwater feeds a small stream that has slashed a deep, brushy ravine between two houses. The water enters a large duct below Hilton Road and then re-emerges, flowing by several more homes. A half-mile away the stream enters Service Creek, and from there it’s only a third of a mile to the Haw River.
The stream is easy to get to. From Hilton Road, climb down a steep, but short embankment and you can enter the duct or wade upstream. People already have. The inside of the duct has been sprayed with graffiti.
The most recent sampling results for the stream are from two years ago. They showed levels of PCE and TCE were decreasing, but still measured far above state maximums: for PCE, up to 21 times greater, and for TCE, up to 10 times greater.
DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard told Policy Watch that those results did not present an excess lifetime cancer risk for people, including children and teens, who might play in the water.
However, depending on the results of the Army’s most recent investigation, the state could require a fence to deter people from entering the stream, Leonard said.
What a fence cannot keep out are harmful gases. Vapor intrusion is the greatest known threat to the neighborhood. It occurs when solvents, like TCE and PCE, contaminate groundwater and permeate the soil. The soil releases vapors that can seep through basements or cracks in foundations, even openings for utility lines. From there, hazardous vapors can invade the home.
Sampling records from the plant show that vapor readings inside the buildings and near the property line exceeded maximum allowable levels by hundreds of times.
Officials from the state Division of Public Health visited the plant in 2016 and were alarmed at how close it was to the homes, records show. Six months later, in 2017, public health officials directed the Army to sample outdoor soil gas.
“Offsite risk for the residential neighborhood remains the state’s highest priority for this site,” Kirsten Hiortdahl, an environmental engineer at DEQ’s Superfund section, wrote to the Army.
Hiortdahl no longer works for DEQ; she now is the Installation Restoration Program Manager at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in Onslow County. She did not respond to an email asking for an interview.
It took time to secure federal funding for the sampling. Two years later, in 2019, Army contractors tested outdoor soil gas in eight locations in the neighborhood. The results showed levels were low enough that they didn’t requiring further monitoring or removal of the soil.
Kropp of the U.S. Army Environmental Command recently told Policy Watch the results showed “no vapor intrusion risk.”
That’s not accurate, according to DEQ. In 2020, the state told Army contractors that while outdoor soil gas levels can be used to estimate those in indoor air, more tests are necessary. Moreover, levels of some contaminants, like benzene — known to cause cancer — were still detected at “close to acceptable values,” for elevated cancer risks, Watters of DEQ wrote.
“To truly say vapor intrusion risk is minimal, indoor samples are needed,” Watters wrote. “This is a data gap.”
As yet, no air has been tested inside any homes in the neighborhood.
I t’s difficult to imagine that at the peak of production, in the 1950s and ‘60s, nearly 4,000 people worked at the plant. Today, peer through shattered windows and past the cobwebs, and you’ll see rooms that look as if employees abruptly left: doors stand ajar, desks sit empty, curtains hang askew.
No one has permanently occupied the facility since 1991, when the lease between the Army and AT&T, the tenant, expired. The following year, while conducting maintenance there on behalf of the federal government, the company found a leaking underground storage tank. Petroleum had contaminated the soil and the groundwater.
The state issued a notice of violation. After discussions with the Army, AT&T agreed to clean up the contamination. Because the state determined the company had acted in good faith, there was no fine.
Since then, the plant’s history has been marked by one alarming discovery after another, contradicting the Army’s claim in 1997 that “in most cases the activities performed at the plant were scrupulously monitored to ensure that no wastes were released to the environment. However, occasional releases occurred.”
That was an understatement.
- Two asbestos surveys underestimated the threat that people could be exposed to the material. A third survey found that several structures, including Building 16, had deteriorated because of a lack of heat and cooling, as well as water damage. Those conditions increased the risk that asbestos could be released into the air.
- Radiation 20 times above background levels was detected in 1999 in Building 4. Contractors removed all of the contaminated flooring, but within a year found more radioactivity in the air ducts and in drain systems throughout several other buildings.
In 2000, then-Burlington City Planner Jeff Triezenberg wrote to the state expressing disappointment at the discovery of new radioactive sites. “However, it really does not come as any surprise,” he wrote. “Most citizens have commented that if the radiation was found in an air duct it’s probably all over the place in minuscule amounts.”
Disposal records are incomplete, so it’s impossible to know the full extent of what happened at the plant. But given its history and activity, state environmental officials doubted the Army’s contention that the releases were negligible.
“A catastrophic release of chlorinated volatile organic compounds could have occurred in the past,” a regional supervisor with the state Superfund Section wrote in 1997. “It appears that offsite migration is occurring.”
Army contractors removed some of the contamination, but there were years when little if anything was accomplished.
Lucent, a spinoff company of AT&T, later deployed a common technology to remove toxic chemicals from the groundwater.
The method injects steam into the groundwater, which transforms liquid into gas. A vacuum pump removes the gas and sends it to a treatment system to prevent contamination from being released to the air.
The results, however, were largely disappointing. “The systems are not achieving the removal rates that the state has expected,” reads correspondence from the mid-1990s. “Contamination has been discovered in the groundwater offsite and [the plant] is suspected to be the source. It is not possible to estimate when the remediation system will operate successfully.”
The Army experimented with injecting soybean oil into the groundwater in hopes it would feed bacteria that would break down the contamination. That too, failed.
Contractors turned off the final groundwater treatment system in 2013, when new private property owners announced plans to demolish the buildings.
The demolition never happened. The groundwater treatment system has not been restarted since.
Meanwhile, state officials and military contractors have found a second branch of contaminated groundwater, this one traveling toward Spruill’s home.
State environmental officials believe contaminated groundwater is seeping through breaks in the tunnel that leads from the center of the property to Building 16. In turn, the tunnel is sending pollutants into the building’s basement, which last year was “flooded from floor to ceiling,” Watters of DEQ wrote to the U.S. Army Environmental Command.
“This is a big environmental issue that has not been properly identified, much less addressed,” Watters wrote.
A s Western Electric began its secret mission, employees needed a place to live. The first duplexes were constructed in the neighborhood — Hilton Road, Cobb Street and Camp Street — beginning in the late 1940s. More than half of the homes were occupied by Western Electric employees, according to city directories from that time.
Today, this is one of the few affordable areas left in Burlington, where you can buy a house for as little as $60,000. Even at those prices, this is still largely a renter’s neighborhood; a handful of landlords, with addresses in Graham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, as well as Burlington, own most of the duplexes. Like Spruill’s, most are in their original configuration, an average of 1,300 square feet divided in two.
On a spring evening, leis of wisteria dangled from Building 16, infusing the air with the scent of grape gum. People relaxed on their front porches and watched their children and grandchildren play with dollhouses and ride tricycles in the yard. Men leaned on their trucks and listened to Spanish-language music booming from their stereos.
Because most renters leave within two or three years, they’re unaware of the plant’s history or the current environmental threats. One family thought it was an old hospital.
Rep. Hurtado said he canvassed the neighborhood when he was running for office. “I met a lot of new residents who said they weren’t planning to stay very long.” he said. “A lot of people didn’t know the full context of where they were living.”
The residents aren’t the only ones who are unaware of the environmental threat. Many nonprofit and community leaders, including those who work on social justice issues, don’t know what’s occurring there, Hurtado said.
“We need to tell the full story of this place and what it will take to work for East Burlington,” Hurtado said. “We have a city that’s willing, a county with renewed interest. But do we have an owner that is willing to invest? To push this forward, we need to clean it up, and not just for the profitability, but in a way that lifts up the neighborhood.”
Former Burlington City Planner Jeff Triezenberg told Policy Watch in an email that the plant has long been considered key to the economic health and well-being of the larger East Burlington community. “It simply loomed over everything else around,” said Triezenberg, now the Garner planning director. “The community was disproportionately Black with a growing Latinx population. Household incomes were markedly lower than the rest of the city so there were many environmental justice concerns as well.”
In 1997, 46% of the census block that includes the plant was low-income; in 2019 the figure was 61%. Twenty-five years ago, just under a third of residents in the census block were people of color, compared with 75% in 2019.
Rates of cancer, child mortality and hospitalizations for asthma in the neighborhoods closest to the plant are above the state average, according to NC Department of Health and Human Services data.
“We’re monitoring some of the groundwater, but are we monitoring the community’s health?” Rep. Hurtado said. “ We have to do everything we can.”
The Alamance County Health Department, which is located a block from Building 16, has not conducted any health studies of residents nearest the plant, a spokeswoman said.
Census tract data mapped by Quartz, a digital media outlet, showed that the average life expectancy of residents of the census tract that includes the plant is 11 years shorter than their west Burlington counterparts: 71 compared with 83.
Many factors — poverty, education, nutrition, as well as environmental contamination — influence life expectancy, so without more research it’s difficult to pinpoint the plant as a potential cause.
The absence of a cleanup, though, underscores Burlington’s inequities. Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis said that when he ran for office in 2013, he learned that “underlying that east-west divide was a lack of respect for East Burlington.”
Tomorrow: The property continues to threaten the safety of the neighborhood, even in private hands. Meanwhile, the Army’s cleanup remains elusive. What’s next for the property and the neighborhood?