Environment

This Week in Pollution: Once on the loose, asbestos captured in Davidson

Less than a mile from Davidson College, an old mill neighborhood hugs a railroad, which in the late 19th and early 20th century, carried thousands of bales of cotton to warehouses and factories along Depot Street. In the 1930s, this neighborhood of small homes and warehouses then became home to Carolina Asbestos, which made shingles through the 1960s. That was long before it was commonly known that asbestos can cause cancer and other fatal lung diseases. And long before it was commonly known dumping asbestos in the ground could come back to haunt the neighborhood 50 years later.

On the west side of this 4.7-acre lot in the middle of the neighborhood, Carolina Asbestos buried at least 60,000 square feet of contaminated material — enough to fill about 35 large self-storage units. On the property there is an embankment, where last fall, heavy rains and, the EPA says, “a varmint digging” eroded part of that earthen wall, unearthing the asbestos and carrying some of it down Eden and Sloan streets.

Asbestos is ubiquitous: It’s in shingles and insulation and paint and clutches and brakes. Asbestos fibers can burrow into the lungs, irreparably damaging them. In North Carolina, 10 counties have old asbestos mines; the state recorded an estimated 5,100 deaths were attributed to asbestos exposure from 1999-2013. Mecklenburg County, which includes Davidson, reported the highest number of deaths, 329, usually from job-related exposures.

After part of the embankment failed, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA investigated, found the asbestos and ordered an emergency cleanup. (The EPA offered to sample soil from the yards on Eden, Sloan, Depot, South Watson and South Jackson streets. Since the EPA is in transition, it’s not publicly known what the results were.)

This week, contractors for Metrolina Warehouse, which now owns the property and the two warehouses onsite, repaired the slope and the berm and grouted the groundhog holes with concrete. They planted grass and covered the ground with coconut fiber matting to secure the soil. And, DEQ says, it will continue to monitor the site. After all, there could be more: Ten years ago, environmental engineers found asbestos buried 9 feet underground and shingles that had been dumped in a warehouse bathroom under the concrete floor.

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