Environment

Still awaiting a proper cleanup, Superfund sites in eastern NC at risk from Hurricane Dorian

At least two-dozen contaminated sites prone to flooding are in counties that are in or near Hurricane Dorian’s path. Yellow markers are Superfund/hazardous waste sites; purple markers indicate coal ash basins. (Map: Duke University Superfund Research Center)

Horton Iron and Metal, which in a previous life was the site of a former fertilizer plant, is a Superfund site that hugs the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. Polluted with PCBs, metals, pesticides, asbestos and other cancer-causing chemicals, it lies less than a mile from Flemington, a low-income neighborhood near Wilmington.

Today, both Flemington and Horton Iron and Metal are in the path of Hurricane Dorian, whose floodwaters could release contaminants, potentially tainting everything they touch, including drinking water supplies.

After Hurricane Florence, Duke University’s Superfund Center developed a map, which is on the DEQ website, of flood-prone contaminated areas statewide, including coal ash basins and Superfund sites.

“Flooding of Superfund sites is raising more and more concerns,” said Ryke Longest, director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. He spoke just three weeks ago at “The Coming Storm,” a conference about hurricane preparedness.

A half-dozen Superfund sites are at risk in eastern North Carolina, including Kerr-McGee in Navassa, the Marine station in Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.

  • Contamination at the 758-acre Wright Chemical Corporation site in Riegelwood, in Columbus County, has not been removed. In fact, the EPA hasn’t yet announced a cleanup remedy, even though the site was placed on the Superfund list in 2011. Pollution from a former alum and sulfuric acid manufacturer has contaminated groundwater, surface water, soil and aquatic life in nearby Livingston Creek.
  • The EPA and the state began investigating widespread contamination at ABC Cleaners, a dry cleaning service in Jacksonville, in Onslow County, in 1992. Hurricane Irene in 2011 damaged clean-up equipment there, and now the EPA has determined that the remediation didn’t work after all. Sampling has revealed PCE, a carcinogen, remains in the soil and groundwater. And now the EPA has decided to start the 27-year investigation process all over again.

Also at risk are Superfund sites whose cleanups entail “monitored natural attenuation” (MNA) — essentially, leave the remaining contaminants in place and hope nature takes its course.

  • Potter’s Septic Tank Service in Sandy Creek, in Brunswick County is among these MNA sites. It was a sludge hauling and oil spill cleanup company for 17 years before a new owner developed the site into a residential neighborhood. Although the affected households have subsequently been connected to a public water supply, the groundwater remains contaminated and subject to monitoring.
  • FCX, a former farm supply distribution center in Washington, is another MNA site. Although some of the groundwater was extracted and treated, the EPA in 2005 switched to the cheaper method of MNA.

There are hundreds of other polluted areas that could also release contamination. For example, landfills built before 1983 were not required to be lined. Whatever detritus was tossed in — hazardous waste, paint, pesticides, TVs and even innocuous household trash — has been percolating in these giant holes in the earth, and in many cases, seeping into groundwater. If flood waters infiltrate these old dumps, those contaminants could be released.

This story was corrected to say the Duke University Superfund Center prepared the map of flood-prone contaminated areas, not DEQ.

All of the reported pre-regulatory landfills in North Carolina (Map: NC DEQ)

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