Lincoln County slow to respond to extremely high levels of cancer-causing arsenic in residents’ drinking water

Lincoln County slow to respond to extremely high levels of cancer-causing arsenic in residents’ drinking water

- in Environment, Top Story
Concerned residents in Lincolnton assembled this map, which shows where homes have high levels of arsenic in their private drinking water wells. Areas shaded in yellow represent the location of a former lithium mine, which operated in the 1950s and 1960s. Indian Creek runs east-west through the neighborhood. The South Fork of the Catawba River is the waterway shown on the right side of the map.

It’s still unclear if the source of the arsenic is naturally occurring or a former lithium mine  

B efore Abby and Jason Hollis bought their 1,200-square-foot house on Laboratory Road in rural Lincolnton, the inspector required them to test their drinking water well, a routine step when purchasing a home.

Good news: Test results from 2007 showed no E. Coli or other bacteria that could send them retching to the emergency room.

Then Jason Hollis later heard about a co-worker in Hickory whose well contained arsenic. The Hollises decided to test their water for the contaminant, “on a whim,” Abby said. 

Bad news: The results showed the Hollises unknowingly had been drinking poisoned water for three years. 

Arsenic levels in their well have been as high as 328 parts per billion – more than 30 times the EPA regulatory standard of 10 ppb. However, no amount of arsenic is safe, and federal regulators have set a maximum contaminant goal of zero. Long-term exposure to arsenic through drinking or cooking has been linked to skin, bladder, lung and kidney cancer. It’s also been linked to neurological problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart and lung disease.

Since 2010, the Hollises have spent more than $12,000 on installing and maintaining a filtration treatment system to reduce arsenic levels. Yet even their treated water has tested at 14 ppb, still above EPA standards. The family, which includes two children, has resorted to buying jugs of water.

“It’s been an ordeal,” Abby Hollis said.

The Hollis family’s well is one of 14 in the Laboratory Road neighborhood that contain high levels of arsenic. In one sense, the abundance of arsenic isn’t surprising: Lincoln County ranks fifth in the state in the number of people at risk of arsenic exposure, according to a 2012 study by the UNC Gillings School of Public Health and the state Department of Health and Human Services. This is due in part to the county’s location in the Carolina slate belt, where arsenic naturally occurs in rock.

However, geology might be only part of the issue along Laboratory Road. Many of the houses along this stretch were built near or atop a former lithium mine, which operated in the 1950s and 1960s, historic aerial photos show. Arsenic is among the toxic byproducts of lithium mining.

Neighborhood residents didn’t know about the mine when they bought their lots. Its existence was listed only in the original deed recorded when the mining company sold the property to a local developer. 

Regardless, cancer doesn’t care about the source of the arsenic. What matters is that the Lincoln County Health Department has known since at least 2010 – when the Hollises’ results were forwarded to that office from the state DHHS lab – that arsenic could be a problem in private drinking water wells in this neighborhood. 

This map, produced in 2003 by DEQ, shows some of the counties that lie within the Carolina slate belt, where high levels of arsenic naturally occur. The Tin Mine Road area in Lincoln County was of particular concern; it now has public water. The Laboratory Road neighborhood is three miles west of Tin Mine Road. (Map: DEQ, Laboratory Road annotated by Policy Watch)

Well after well tested high, but county officials failed to promptly respond to the public health crisis. Only recently, as a result of the residents’ outspokenness, has the county begun to act.

In one case, a top county official dismissed residents’ concerns. When local real estate broker O’Neal Helms mentioned the problem to Lincoln County Commission Chairman Carrol Mitchem, he allegedly responded that “everybody has a little bit of arsenic in their water,” Helms told Policy Watch. “He told me that I should stick to selling houses, that I should stay in my lane.”

Mitchem did not return a call to his county office, where Policy Watch left a message. He does not list an email on the county’s website and efforts to find alternate phone numbers were unsuccessful.

Ironically, clean water is available less than a football field’s length away. A Lincolnton public water line ends where Laboratory Road crosses Indian Creek. Granted, it would be expensive – roughly $1 million – to service the neighborhood. Yet the county’s own utility extension policy states that public water and sewer can be provided when necessary “to protect health, public safety and welfare.”

And the money exists. Earlier this year North Carolina received nearly $2 billion in federal funds for water and sewer infrastructure, which is awarded to cities and counties. State records show Lincoln County didn’t apply for funding, most of which is allocated on a scoring basis by the Division of Water Infrastructure. However, the county did receive $18.5 million in the state budget to run a water line to Gaston County. Meanwhile, in Lincoln County, officials have stonewalled Laboratory Road neighbors’ requests for public water.

This cluster of arsenic contamination points to a larger problem for private drinking well owners. More than 2.3 million North Carolinians rely on private wells, 40,000 of them in Lincoln County, according to a state study. Yet their water is not regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. It is up to the property owner to test the well, and if the water is contaminated, to pay for alternate supplies, which many people can’t afford.

In North Carolina, only new wells dug after 2008 are required to undergo a comprehensive panel of tests, including one for arsenic. 

Old wells, like the Hollis family’s, dug in 2000, aren’t required to be tested at all. 

In neither case is routine monitoring required.

“Private well users in North Carolina are largely unprotected when it comes to the quality of their unregulated drinking water source,” Rachel Velez, water justice program director for Clean Water for North Carolina, said. ”Proactive policies, like requiring well testing prior to any real estate transaction, would better position homeowners and tenants to make informed decisions about the water they drink.” 

Without access to clean water, adequate testing and financial help, the residents of Laboratory Road are on their own.

Historical aerial imagery shows the location of a lithium mine near what is now the 3500 and 3600 block of Laboratory Road in Lincolnton. (Photo: Lincoln County)

A n aerial photo from 1956, available on the Lincoln County website, shows Laboratory Road, Indian Creek, the South Fork of the Catawba River – and a giant pit carved from a nearby woods. On top of the picture, someone had written the words “Lithium mine.”

According to county deed records, Trio Mills sold the land to the Lithium Corporation of America in 1954. By mining standards, the operation was short-lived. Based on a 1968 aerial photo, trees have begun to dot the barren landscape and the mine was either closed or winding down. 

Because the mine operated when there were few if any environmental regulations, and before the state Mining Act of 1971, it was not listed in the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s database, an agency spokesman said. The Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources only recently learned of the former mine from Lincoln County residents; the division is now investigating, the spokesman said. 

Once the mine closed, the Lithium Corporation sold the property to a subsidiary, FMC Lithium. And in January 1998, FMC Lithium sold 132 acres to two new owners: C&M Land Company and Roger Gates, both of Lincoln County. 

The deed recording the sale of the lithium mine property to Lincolnton developers

The new owners sold off large lots of 10 and even 50 acres. Over time, those lots were subdivided, and re-sewn as a new neighborhood arose filled with a mixture of ranches and other more modern-style houses, as well as modular homes.

Michael Baker of C&M Land Company still works in Lincoln County. He told Policy Watch that when his company bought the property, it was mostly wooded and the pit no longer existed.

It’s unclear how the Lithium Corporation of America reclaimed – or filled in – the mine. There were no reclamation requirements before 1971. However, neighbors told Policy Watch that when they have dug into their property, or during heavy rain (part of the neighborhood lies within a flood plain) immense amounts of trash, including metal and old bottles, emerge from the ground.

Forty years ago, in more environmentally naive times, the county apparently didn’t consider the prudence of building homes near or on an old mine. In fact, there was no zoning to guide such a land-use decision in unincorporated Lincoln County until about the mid-1990s. 

Since then, this part of Laboratory Road has been zoned residential, according to Planning Director Andrew Bryant. In 1997, the county did approve a minor subdivision, Timber Creek, for the east side of Laboratory Road – the former C&M Land Company property.

There is no record of a county discussion about the history of the land that became Timber Creek. That was an “administrative action,” Bryant said, “and as such there were no minutes for the approval.” (Restrictions do apply to the subdivision, though. “Noxious or offensive activity” is prohibited, as is “anything that may become an annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood,” according to the covenants laid out in the deed.)

Ashley and Kenneth Gehrig live in that subdivision on the east side of Laboratory Road just across Indian Creek from the old mine. They bought their house in 2018; their well was dug in 2006, two years before the state law for new wells went into effect.

Their water smelled like sulfur, Ashley Gehrig said. “That didn’t concern me, but something told me not to drink the water. I believe that was the Lord protecting me.”

She persuaded her husband to test the water more extensively. The results: 147 parts per billion, nearly 15 times the EPA maximum.

They installed a filtration system — at a cost of $4,000, plus thousands of dollars’ worth of regular maintenance — but when arsenic levels are extremely high, the filtration media don’t last long. Sometimes the replacement filtration media arrive late from the company. Because of availability issues, it once took nearly three weeks for the Gehrigs to get their new supply. In that time, the price of the filtration media nearly doubled from $1,100 to $1,900.

While they waited on the delivery, Gehrig and her children took showers elsewhere. “Because of the high levels, I did not feel safe using, or bathing my children in water considered carcinogenic,” she said.

A state Department of Health and Human services spokesperson said the agency “is aware of the arsenic issues” and has spoken with the county health department about how local authorities are addressing concerns.

DHHS recommends that homeowners with wells test for arsenic and other heavy metals every two years. If arsenic levels are high, the spokesperson said, residents should tell their doctors so their health can be monitored.

Lena Jones, who was appointed as the new Lincoln County health director in July, told Policy Watch via email that her office has now notified neighborhood residents by mail to test their wells quarterly. For households whose wells contain arsenic, they shouldn’t use their water for drinking or food preparation. They should instead use alternative water sources, including bottled water or filtration systems, including reverse osmosis, according to a letter to residents.

This is a departure from what Gehrig said occurred in 2018, when she spoke to the county’s environmental health department about her well results. “They said one of my neighbors had high levels of arsenic,” Gehrig told Policy Watch. “I asked, ‘Why aren’t you telling people?’ And they said, ‘We don’t track it.’”

Results from the Gehrig well this year (above) and Hollis well (below) from 2010 and 2021.

T he old lithium mine could be a source of the arsenic, a byproduct of the extraction process. Or the arsenic could be naturally occurring, as volcanic rock, millions of years old, weathers, breaks down and releases it. Or it could be both. 

Some homes along Laboratory Road have no arsenic in their wells. The presence or absence of contamination can depend on a well’s depth and location. “That’s why you can have high arsenic levels in one well, but across the street, there’s none,” said Andrew George, community engagement coordinator with the UNC Institute for the Environment and the UNC Superfund Research Program. He works with communities statewide to help address their drinking water issues.

The source of the arsenic is important from a funding standpoint. The state’s Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund has earmarked money for private well owners whose drinking water is contaminated. 

However, there are caveats: The aid is based on income. And the source of the contamination can’t be “naturally occurring.” In other words, if Laboratory Road’s arsenic comes from the mine, some residents could be eligible for money for alternative water sources. But if the state determines the arsenic is leaching from the rock, then the county and neighbors would have to find the money elsewhere.

Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican who represents Lincoln County, said officials “are going back and forth with the state to see what solution might be.”

Saine said the legislature could include money for public water in the next state budget. “That’s a reasonable ask,” Saine said. 

Lincoln County Commissioner Cathy Davis said county officials “are very well aware” of the arsenic problem. “This is not a new issue. But there aren’t any easy or quick fixes.”

The NC Real Estate Commission’s new well testing brochure. It will also be translated into Spanish.

Water infrastructure can take years to complete, including bidding the job and then building the line. In 2018 Lincoln County received a $6.88 million grant from the Division of Water Infrastructure to run six linear miles of water line to an elementary school. Construction on the project just recently finished.

Davin Madden is the former Lincoln County health director and now the county manager. In a written statement to Policy Watch, he linked water system upgrades to economic growth. 

“We are hopeful that future development trends and opportunity may allow for continuing infrastructure improvement in more rural areas of the county that can help to minimize these issues with water quality,” he wrote.

The population of Lincoln County has grown by more than 3% over the past year, because it is a relatively easy commute to Iredell and Mecklenburg counties. As more homes are built – or existing ones resold – many real estate brokers are hunting for labs that will run arsenic tests.

Full water test panels, even for homes with federally backed mortgages under FHA, don’t include arsenic, said O’Neal Helms, who sits on the Lincoln County Board of REALTORS.

Helms sold the Gehrigs their home on Laboratory Road four years ago. When the well test was conducted, the county didn’t even offer arsenic as an option, she said. “Arsenic isn’t an option on standard well testing.”.

She’s begun educating her real estate colleagues about well testing and arsenic. With help from UNC, DHHS, and nonprofits, the NC Real Estate Commission also recently included a brochure on its website to advise brokers on well testing. 

Real estate brokers have to tread a narrow legal line, Helms said. They can’t “falsely stigmatize” a property where it’s uncertain if arsenic is present in the water. But if a broker knows the well is contaminated, they have to disclose, otherwise “they’re passing the problem on to someone else.”

Last week, a new house was under construction on the east side of Laboratory Road. Next door, behind it, across the street: All have well water with  high levels of arsenic.

It’s uncertain if the new home’s well could be contaminated.

It hasn’t been drilled yet.