For more than 10 years, it has been forbidden to eat a single fish from Brier Creek Reservoir in Wake County. Areas downstream, such as Brier Creek and Little Brier Creek, were also off-limits. That prohibition extended for nearly 30 miles southwest, to Crabtree Creek, Lake Crabtree, on down into parts of the Neuse River where, state officials advised, people shouldn’t eat more than one meal of fish per month.
The reason: PCBs and dioxins, cancer-causing compounds, were in oil that had leaked from Ward Transformer Company, which manufactured, rehabbed and sold electrical transformers from 1964 to 2006. From 11 acres just north of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Ward’s pollution drained into the soil and water, including tributaries that fed some of the most popular waterways in the state. Fish became contaminated, although people, some of whom rely on fishing for their, still eat them.
PCBs were widely used a coolant fluid in electrical equipment from 1929 to 1977. Their manufacture was banned in 1979, but weren’t completely phased out in industry until the early 1980s. Dioxins are formed when PCBs burn.
On Friday, the EPA announced it has reached a $5.5 million settlement with 173 companies throughout the U.S. that contributed to the contamination. They include major corporations such as Union Carbide and US Steel; utilities from San Antonio to Philadelphia to New York and South Carolina; and North Carolina state government like the Department of Agriculture, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University. At some point, each of the 173 sent electrical transformers to Ward.
The settlement is the latest chapter in a cumbersome, expensive and decades-long history at Ward Transformer. It shows the bureaucratic hurdles and delays that beset the Superfund program.
Shortly before the EPA banned the manufacture of PCBs, in 1978 state and federal regulators first discovered suspicious samples in soil and the stormwater lagoon on Ward property, plus more contamination downstream. (Ward Transformer also became famous that year when two men in a tanker truck sprayed an estimated 30,000 gallons of PCB-laced oil along rural roadsides in 14 counties, The News & Observer reported. Buck Ward, the company president and one of four men convicted in the dumping, served nine months in federal prison in 1982.
From 1994 to 1997, the state found more contamination, which had spread to nearby properties.In 2003, Ward Transformer became a federal Superfund site, and in 2004 the EPA deemed the contamination so dangerous as to warrant a “time-critical removal action,” which was supposed to happen in three to six months.
Yet not until 2007 did excavation begin of 400,000 cubic yards of dirt. — enough to fill 100 train cars.
Another decade and $82 million in, the 173 potentially responsible parties will be required to pay for the cleanup plan that was chosen in September 2008. That includes excavating PCB-contaminated soil and sediment and monitoring of sediment and aquatic life to ensure cleanup goals are being met.
When will it be safe to eat the fish again? In Brier Creek Reservoir, it will take at least another five years.