The forest lay still, save for the rustling of leaves of bamboo. It was in a clearing on this 15 acres in rural Gastonia that Carl Hendrix, now deceased, scratched out a living. He took in old chemical drums from nearby industry, rinsed them, poured the toxic dregs on the ground, then flattened the metal for sale as scrap.
Over the past 60 years the chemical TCE, found in solvents, has soaked through the earth, meandered through the subsurface rock, inched its way below Hemphill Road and contaminated at least eight private drinking water wells, plus another community well that served an entire neighborhood. TCE entered seeps that fed an unnamed creek where children used to play.
TCE is a known human carcinogen. Exposure can also cause heart malformations in a fetus, especially in the earliest stages of development, before a person knows they are pregnant.
Hemphill Road TCE is one of four in North Carolina where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to spend a total of $16 million in American Rescue Plan Funds to accelerate the cleanups.
The Superfund program is reserved for some of the most heavily polluted areas in the United States, where the people or companies responsible for the contamination have disappeared, gone bankrupt or otherwise can’t pay for a cleanup. It is left to the EPA to do the work and cover the costs, which can take decades.
A year ago the EPA announced it would devote $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to accelerate cleanups at dozens of Superfund sites nationwide. In addition to the Hemphill Road TCE, the other three North Carolina sites are Holcomb Creosote in Yadkinville, Ram Leather Care in Charlotte, and ABC One Hour Cleaners in Jacksonville near Camp Lejeune. All of these highly contaminated areas lie within low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, or both.
Hemphill Road TCE, 5009 Hemphill Road, Gastonia: $6.3 million
Hemphill Road TCE was designated as a Superfund site 10 years ago, but the damage was done well before then. In 1988 and 1989, local health officials found private wells contained TCE: one at the property used by employees of a trucking company that had bought the land and another at a private residence across Hemphill Road. Those wells either received filtration systems or were taken offline altogether.
“Back then, if there was just isolated contamination, once we put a filter in so people were not longer exposed … then it was no longer a threat, and we didn’t look into it any further,” Donna Seadler, the EPA remedial project manager for the site, told attendees of a public meeting in 2018, according to an official transcript.
But in the early 2000s, shortly after a modular home community — Kensington Estates — was built across Hemphill Road, state officials found more contamination in drinking water wells, including one that served the entire neighborhood of more than 100 households.
“Those were the wells that when they were constructed, they were pretty much contaminated,” Melanie Henderson, an environmental engineer at the NC Department of Environmental Quality, said at the 2018 meeting.
That well was closed and Kensington Estates was connected to a clean drinking water source at an adjacent neighborhood, Amy Acres.
“We moved about five years ago,” an unidentified resident of Amy Acres said at the meeting. “I was told literally when I bought my house, because I have a well, ‘Do not drink the well water because of something that happened in the 1960s.’ The previous owner actually told me that.”
Aqua NC operates the Amy Acres community well; regular testing has shown it is not contaminated. Private drinking water wells still could be.
With the $6.3 million in American Rescue Plan funding, the EPA first will extend municipal water lines to eight properties where the private drinking water wells have been contaminated. The contract for water line extension is in place, an EPA spokesperson said, and federal contractors are currently obtaining permits and planning the water line work.
The second phase of the cleanup is to treat the groundwater.
ABC One Hour Cleaners, 2127 Lejeune Blvd., Jacksonville: $5.3 million
One of the most complex and vexing dry cleaning sites in North Carolina, ABC One Hour Cleaners has been on the Superfund list for 33 years. More than $1 million in taxpayer money has been spent to remediate the soil and expanding groundwater plume — which crept beneath nearby Camp Lejeune — but because of funding shortages, contractual disputes, recalcitrant business owners, broken equipment and even hurricane damage, the cleanup has failed, Policy Watch previously reported.
With the recent injection of money, thermal remediation — heating the soil to very high temperatures — will be used to remove contaminants at the source. A virtual public meeting will be scheduled for March, according to the EPA. Construction of the treatment system is scheduled to begin in April, with operations starting in June. If the project goes as planned, the cleanup could be complete by late 2024.
Holcomb Creosote, 5016 US Highway 601, Yadkinville: $3.75 million
Holcomb Creosote treated wood with creosote from 1951 until it closed in February 2009. Some of the irresponsible disposal practices occurred well before federal waste regulations were established, but that dumping continued even afterward, resulting in a long list of environmental violations.
At least 64,000 gallons of hazardous waste, including hydraulic fluid and creosote polluted soil, a stream — which investigators found coated in a sheen — wetlands, groundwater and even areas along nearby railroad tracks. Company owners used a three-quarter-acre, unlined “land farm,” to dump its contaminated sludge.
Contaminants, including those that can cause cancer and have other harmful health effects, have been detected in soil thousands of times above state and federal standards.
The EPA placed the site on the Superfund list in 2012. Construction on equipment to treat the groundwater and soil is scheduled to begin on March 6. This includes sealing some of the contaminated soil with a cap that is specially designed for hazardous waste landfills.
Ram Leather Care, 15100 Albemarle Road, Charlotte: $750,000
Ram Leather Care has been on the Superfund list for 20 years. The dry cleaning solvent PERC and similar compounds have been found in the soil, groundwater and bedrock aquifer. Exposure can cause neurological problems, blood disorders, and fetal development problems, as well as damage the kidney, liver and immune system. Studies of people exposed in the workplace have found associations with several types of cancer including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
The money will pay for extending municipal water lines to as many as seven homes where low levels of contaminants from the site were found. Construction is expected to begin this month.
To control the spread of the plume of contaminated groundwater, the EPA has determined two technologies are most feasible. First, is soil vapor extraction, which essentially vacuums the toxic gas from below ground via wells. Next, the contaminated gas is then treated in a chamber onsite using activated charcoal; the innocuous vapor is released and the contamination remains in the charcoal for disposal at a hazardous waste landfill.
The second phase of the cleanup entails “in situ” thermal treatment in which hHeat is applied underground directly to the contaminated area. The method is particularly useful for chemicals that do not dissolve readily in groundwater, such as solvents, petroleum and creosote. The EPA also plans to add bio-barriers, often in the form of microbes that break down the compounds. Contract for that work is expected to be awarded no later than this spring.