Air testing planned for neighborhood adjacent to contaminated former missile plant in Burlington

Air testing planned for neighborhood adjacent to contaminated former missile plant in Burlington

- in Environment
The homes in the shadow of the former Tarheel Army Missile Plant (center) are shown near the top of the aerial photo. Environmental contractors plan to sample air near the foundations of four houses that abut the plant to determine whether toxic vapors that originated in groundwater are present. The plant is the source of widespread contamination, which has lingered for more than 30 years. (Photo: DEQ)

Extent of toxic solvents still unknown; new round of testing to begin

Environmental testing could restart as early as next month at a former Army missile plant in East Burlington, the next step in cleaning up widespread contamination that has burdened a Black and Latinx neighborhood for more than 30 years.

While the sampling plan does not cover the cleanup, the results will guide the future removal or treatment of the contamination. That process will likely take at least another decade.

In a two-part story last fall, Policy Watch reported on the inertia and negligence that had delayed work at the Tarheel Army Missile Plant. Since the mid-1990s, the military, which is responsible for groundwater and some surface water contamination, has spent $2 million on a cleanup. Those efforts have largely failed, and untold amounts of toxic solvents remain, both onsite and beneath the neighborhood. 

The plant, which operated from the 1950s until 1992, includes more than a dozen buildings on 22 acres near the corner of Church Street and Graham-Hopedale Road. The property abuts six duplexes and two single-family homes. Another half dozen duplexes face the facility. At least six more households lie within the path of groundwater contamination, which has also polluted a stream that eventually feeds the Haw River. As Policy Watch previously reported, neighborhood residents have complained that runoff from the plant — possibly contaminated — floods their yards.

The latest round of testing will include more extensive groundwater monitoring, as well soil gas sampling next to the foundations of four private homes, according to a plan filed by Northwind-Jacobs and Terracon, contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is among several federal agencies involved in the remediation; the NC Department of Environmental Quality oversees and approves investigation and cleanup plans. The City of Burlington does not have authority over the below-ground cleanup.

Soil gas sampling is important because the solvents in the groundwater can vaporize and enter people’s homes. Depending on the level of exposure, people can be at risk of developing liver, kidney and immune disorders, as well as several types of cancers: kidney, liver, cervix, and lymphatic system. The vapors can also harm a developing fetus.

Indoor air sampling is also planned, the report said, as long as property owners and residents allow access. Nearly all the homes in the neighborhood are rentals. The four homes identified for initial testing adjoin the plant and sit along Hilton Road.

Two years ago, DEQ told a different Army contractor that indoor air sampling was required to verify that residents were not at risk. Those tests never happened.

The missile plant was key to the military’s Cold War strategy. Its work was top secret; a former employee, now in his 90s, told Policy Watch that tunnels beneath the complex were designed, in part, to house workers in case of an attack. Three tunnels, according to state and federal maps and reports, have flooded because “pump systems designed to keep water out” have not operated “due to power being turned off to the buildings,” read documents kept by DEQ.

This has raised concerns that the tunnels, approximately 20 feet underground, could be funneling contaminated water beneath the neighborhood. The new contractor plans to sample the tunnel water, which has not occurred before. But if contamination is found, it will be difficult to safely dispose of the water.

The plan lays out an astonishing list of data gaps — even after 30 years — that prevent regulators from knowing the full extent of the contamination. Even with the advantage of new sampling methods, as compared to those available in 1988, there is a dearth of information. As recently as 2020, no one had precisely mapped the sources of the groundwater plumes. There are two plumes, one extending northeast beneath the neighborhood, and another traveling northwest beneath homes and polluting the stream.

In 2015, soil and soil vapor data was not collected; in 2010, there was no quality control information available to ensure the data was sound.

West of the plant property, the stream also contains high levels of solvents. It’s unclear if the plant or another industrial site is the source. The western part of the neighborhood is bordered by several old, dilapidated and abandoned industrial buildings. No tests have been done to try to find the source of the contaminants.

A latest map of toxic solvents migrating through the groundwater show the highest levels at the former missile plant, represented by dark orange. From there, the plume travels northwest beneath the neighborhood and into a creek, represented in light blue to the west (left) of the property. The current property owner plans to convert Buildings 1 and 1A, and possibly Building 3, into office space. Buildings 13 and 14 would be leased for storage. (Map: US Army Corps of Engineers)

Above ground, still questions about contamination, future use

David Tsui, an orthotic shoe salesman with a criminal record of fraud, is the third private owner of the property. Under a congressionally approved program, the federal government is allowed to sell property that is still contaminated as long as restrictions are listed in the deed.

According to DEQ documents, Tsui plans to repurpose two buildings to lease for storage, and three others potentially for office space. Federal documents show that Tsui has advertised the property as a “mixed use development,” including multi-family residential and education uses. Given the known contamination, the property would have to be significantly cleaned up before state and federal law would allow those uses.

The former missile plant “is a logistically complex site with unique and sometimes conflicting goals of redevelopment and of environmental restoration …” wrote Rohit Warrier, project manager with DEQ’s Superfund Section to Tsui’s contractors last summer.

In the fall, contractors began gutting an old office building that they believe to be free of solvent contamination. However, a DEQ letter to the contractors from last July noted that no sampling has been done to confirm that assumption. Just 100 feet away from that building, DEQ noted that very high levels of solvents have been found in the groundwater. The agency is also requiring indoor air sampling.

It’s unclear whether the building undergoing renovation contained asbestos, but historical documents say the material, which is linked to a type of lung cancer, is likely present through the complex. A written summary of a site visit conducted last August noted that some asbestos throughout the complex has already been removed. Material that didn’t contain asbestos has been labeled, the summary reads, “but some labeling has proven inaccurate.”

Workers laid insulation and other material on the grass outside the building, but without a cover. On at least three occasions, Policy Watch saw workers entering and leaving the building, and standing in dumpsters, without wearing any protective gear. A worker at the site declined to talk about the demolition.