Arsenic, benzene among contaminants found in soil, groundwater at former Weaver Fertilizer plant site

(Screenshot from Winston-Salem Fire Department drone footage)

Contaminated soil and groundwater have been found at the former Weaver Fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem, where a devastating fire forced the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents a little over a year ago.

Several soil samples contained high levels of arsenic; groundwater had elevated concentrations of several chemicals, including nitrite, nitrate, and benzene — the latter of which is a known carcinogen.

The initial findings were part of a draft Remedial Investigation Work Plan submitted by independent contractors to the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The firm, Montrose Engineering, used ground-penetrating radar, soil borings and monitoring wells as part of its investigation.

Contractors noted that the extent of the groundwater contamination — both across and beneath the property — is still unknown and needs further sampling and study.

On Jan. 31, 2022, 600 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire at the Weaver Fertilizer plant at 4440 N. Cherry St. and burned for four days. Emergency management officials asked thousands of nearby residents to voluntarily evacuate, although many chose to shelter in place. Because of the extent of the damage, the cause of the fire has not been determined. The ruins of the main structures have since been razed; a two-story office building- still stands.

Levels of arsenic in the soil were greater than background levels in three spots on the west side of the property, near the former rail spur. The highest concentration was 42.2 part per million. By comparison, that is 62 times greater than the Residential Health-Based Preliminary Soil Remediation Goals.

“It is possible that elevated arsenic in the upper 6 inches of soil is attributable of 80 years of handling fertilizers and micronutrients to and from rail cars,” the report reads. “Commercial phosphate fertilizers contain small amounts of heavy metals such as arsenic and chromium.”

Elevated chromium levels were typical of soil conditions in that part of the state, and contractors believe what they found onsite is naturally occurring.

As for groundwater, monitoring wells showed nitrate and nitrite levels were elevated across the site — unsurprising since fertilizer contains these nitrogen compounds. Three wells indicated nitrate/nitrite levels 15 to 50 times the groundwater standard. The areas with the highest contaminant levels were beneath former stock pile and storage areas.

An aerial view of the Weaver Fertilizer plant after the fire. On the left side of the photo is the rail line and its spur. High levels of arsenic were found in soil in this area. (Photo: Forsyth County GIS)

Arsenic, selenium, lead, cadmium, barium and selenium were also detected above groundwater standards in several monitoring wells. The highest concentrations were detected near the location of a storage tank that was coated in a material containing petroleum.

A spokesperson for the NC Department of Environmental Quality said agency staff is reviewing the report and “will be following up with the consulting regarding specific review comments and next steps.” That review will be publicly available in a few weeks, the spokesperson said.

After the fire, the state Department of Labor and OSHA fined Weaver Fertilizer $5,600 for workplace violations. DEQ cited the company for violations of the Clean Water Act related to a separate location where it was stashing chemicals. Since the building — essentially a large shed — was open-sided, the chemicals were exposed to the elements. That led to contaminated runoff in a nearby creek.

After investigation, state health, environmental officials say no radiation detected at former missile plant in Burlington

Photos from NCDEQ records, plant pamphlets. Collage by Lisa Sorg

[Update: Thursday, Feb. 16, at 11:32 am: Carl Smith, who is quoted in this story, shared a screenshot of an email from the NC Department of Health and Human Services saying that it had completed the investigation and found no radiation hazard. “We could not replicate the readings that you provided in your original allegation.”]

Two state agencies are investigating a report of high levels of radiation at the former Tar Heel Army Missile Plant in Burlington, Policy Watch has confirmed. The vacant facility at 204 N. Graham-Hopedale Road is known locally as Western Electric, a former tenant of the building. The 22-acre site has been abandoned for 30 years.

Last week, the Division of Radiation Protection, which is under the state Department of Health and Human Services, received information from an “urban explorer” who had stood at the entrance at one of the underground tunnels with a dosimeter, an instrument that measures radiation exposure.

The dosimeter showed 2.5 rems per hour, according a screenshot of the measurement inside the tunnel shared with Policy Watch.. Rems is short for Roentgens per hour, the unit of measurement for radioactivity.

It’s important to note that this is only one reading, and it’s possible the instrumentation could have been faulty or uncalibrated. But if the level is verified by additional state testing, it would be 250 times higher than the allowable hourly dose limit for the public, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, the urban explorer’s background levels outside the tunnel measured zero, which would indicate that the public would not be at risk unless they entered the tunnel, or if radiation is found elsewhere.

The Division of Waste Management, which is under the state Department of Environmental Quality, is assisting the investigation. DWM has overseen previous testing of other non-radioactive contaminants at the site.

Both divisions visited the TAMP on Wednesday morning to conduct independent sampling, according to a DEQ spokesperson.

The US Army Military Command, which previously owned the property, is liable for cleaning up contamination below ground. The current private owner is for remediating above-ground contamination, such as asbestos in the buildings.

In 2021, Policy Watch published a two-part series about the environmental history of the plant and the lack of meaningful action to clean up the remaining contamination, primarily solvents.  In that series, Policy Watch also reported that radioactive isotopes – Cesium-137 and Americium-241 — had been used at the plant to test guidance systems for the US government’s Nike Missile program. In the 1970s, a worker poured Cesium-137 down a sink drain.

Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years – the amount of time half of the material will decay.

Americium-241 has a half-life of 430 years.

Although the radiation was supposedly cleaned up, in 1999, radiation 20 times above background levels was detected in 1999 in Building 4. Contractors removed all of the contaminated flooring, but within a year found more radioactivity in the air ducts and in drain systems throughout several other buildings.

In 2000, then-Burlington City Planner Jeff Triezenberg wrote to the state expressing disappointment at the discovery of new radioactive sites. “However, it really does not come as any surprise,” he wrote. “Most citizens have commented that if the radiation was found in an air duct it’s probably all over the place in minuscule amounts.”

Carl Smith, a doctoral candidate in nuclear engineering at NC State University, told Policy Watch he had advised the person who took the tunnel measurements to contact state officials. At the levels recorded by the dosimeter, a lethal dose of radioactivity would likely occur within 10 days if the person stayed in the contaminated area, Smith said.

(Photo: DEQ)

After just 10 minutes, Smith said, a person in the tunnel would receive about a year’s worth of radiation.

When the plant was in use, underground tunnels connected the multiple buildings onsite and served as a bunker in case of a nuclear attack, according to historical documents and a former plant employee, now in his 90s.

The dilapidated tunnels are a conduit for groundwater contaminated with solvents, like TCE and other volatile organic compounds, according to state records. DEQ officials believe that pollution is seeping through breaks in a tunnel that leads from the center of the property to Building 16, state records show.

In turn, the tunnel is sending pollutants into the Building 16’s basement, which in 2020 was “flooded from floor to ceiling,” according to DEQ notes to the U.S. Army Environmental Command.

“… This is a big environmental issue that has not been properly identified much less addressed,” the notes read. “… Something should be done to characterize and properly dispose of the water. Also if the tunnel breach is that bad, plug it up and stop further infiltration.”

Building 16 is on the north side of the property and lies within 100 feet of several homes in a predominantly low-income neighborhood and community of color. Residents previously told Policy Watch their yards flood from runoff coming from the plant.

Unsheltered people also live at the plant, according to state documents; others, including teenagers and the curious, often explore the buildings and the tunnels.

The lack of security has posed an “urgent public health issue” since 2015, state records show, but has yet to be permanently resolved. Even with additional fencing, there are plenty of places to slip inside the facility. In some cases, people simply cut the fence.

The federal government owned the plant until the early 2004. Since then, it has been privately owned by three separate companies. None of them has improved the property, and instead allowed it to lay fallow.

The current owner, David Tsui, tried to enroll the facility in the state’s Brownfields program in order to redevelop it. The state denied his application because he has a federal criminal record for defrauding the Medicare program in connection with his orthotic shoe business.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announces $2 billion for small water systems to address PFAS contamination, $62 million for NC

Elizabeth Biser, secretary of NC Department of Environmental Quality, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan spoke in Maysville about new funding for small utilities to address PFAS contamination in their drinking water. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The water tower is the tallest structure in Maysville, a landmark to nudge visitors from US Highway 17 to Main Street, the heart of this small Jones County town. More than 70,000 gallons of water flowed each day from the tower, when four years ago, Lee Ferguson sampled the drinking water.

“We were caught off guard,” Ferguson, a Duke University scientist, said Monday at a roundtable discussion with local, state and federal officials in Maysville. “We didn’t expect to see it here.”

Maysville’s drinking water, sourced from the Castle Hayne aquifer, contained exorbitant levels of toxic PFAS: 13 types totaling 334 parts per trillion.

Also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoro-alkyl compounds, PFAS have been linked to serious health problems, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disorders, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, and fetal malformations.

There are at least 12,000 types of PFAS. They are widespread in the environment, where they don’t break down, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” They are found in Teflon cookware, Scotchgard-treated carpet and furniture, fast food packaging, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and firefighting foam; they’ve even have been detected in some compost.

On Monday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Maysville to announce the Biden administration is immediately allocating $2 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to the nation’s small and disadvantaged communities to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in their public water supplies.

Roughly $62 million will go toward projects in North Carolina, Regan said. Although the criteria for towns to receive the funds has yet to be announced, the state Division of Water Infrastructure generally awards federal funds to municipalities, based on objective scoring of their applications.

“Small communities have always been the backbone of nation,” Regan said. “We’re going as far and as fast as we can.”

PFAS can’t be removed from drinking water using traditional treatment methods. The grant money is critical for small public utilities, which can’t afford the millions of dollars to install advanced systems, such as granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis.

“There isn’t a small town in this country with the rate base ” — customers – to pay for the upgrades, DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser said at the roundtable. For example, the Maysville utility serves just 450 households; without a $2.5 million grant it received to install a filtration system on a new well, the cost would be passed on to those households, at $2,500 each. The new water supply is scheduled to come online this spring.

Likewise, Pittsboro’s utility, which provides water to 1,800 homes, recently installed a granular activated carbon filter, costing the town $3.5 million. (The town is suing several PFAS manufacturers, including Chemours, DuPont and 3M, to recover the money.)

Nationwide, the contamination is so widespread that it would require an estimated $600 billion to remove the compounds from public water systems. And that doesn’t include the contamination of private wells.

“Removal starts at the source,” Ferguson said. “We have to keep them out of the environment in the first place.”

Lee Ferguson conducting the water sampling that found PFAS in Maysville’s drinking water.

The source of Maysville’s PFAS contamination is likely a type of firefighting foam known as AFFF. It is used to extinguish fires involving gasoline, petroleum and other substances where water isn’t effective.

Regan said that Congress and state legislatures must also do their part. “We’re always chasing the slickest manufacturer out there,” Regan said. “We need more accountability, but we also need to push Congress and state legislators to change the law.”

In 2017, the Star-News reported that high levels of PFAS had been detected in Wilmington’s drinking water. Since then, North Carolina lawmakers have yet to pass meaningful legislation to penalize the polluters.

Two years later, most independent scientists were just beginning to grasp the toxicity of PFAS. (Scientists working for PFAS manufacturers had known about the compounds’ health effects for decades but did not disclose them.)

Based on the available science at the time, the EPA and state health officials had set a health advisory goal for PFAS at no more than 70 parts per trillion for any single compound. Now scientists know that figure was not nearly protective enough. Last summer, the EPA lowered that threshold, which is not legally enforceable, for several PFAS to parts per quadrillion – thousands of times below what scientists initially believed was acceptable.

In retrospect, Maysville’s PFAS contamination was even worse than initially thought.

Ferguson was – and still is – among dozens of researchers in the NC PFAS Testing Network. It is funded by state and federal dollars, administered by the NC Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill. As Ferguson was sampling Maysville’s water, other scientists within the network were also testing hundreds of public water systems statewide. Of the more than 380 samples, Maysville had the fifth-highest levels.

“We received a phone call [from Maysville],” Jones County Commissioner James Harper said. “They were in dire straits. They said, ‘We have PFAS.’”

Maysville Town Manager Schumata Brown emphasized that local officials need to know how to explain the risks of PFAS contamination to their customers.

Maysville Town Manager Schumata Brown arranged to get water from Jones County, whose supply was free of PFAS. Residents had clean water, but the town now had to pay for it.

And Jones County also paid a price, Commissioner Harper said, because it affects the infrastructure.

“We’re on a very costly journey,” Harper said. “But Jones County will help Maysville for as long as it takes.”

Fossil fuel drilling threatens air and wildlife in national parks, advocacy group finds

Tons of creosote-treated railroad ties burn, polluting air over largely non-white, low-income neighborhoods near Goldsboro

A shopping center and the Tropicana Supermarket is a half mile north of National Salvage & Security. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

From 25 miles away, an inky plume of smoke and its purple tail diffused over the eastern horizon. Closer to the blaze, smoke roiled and towered behind the tree line and a shopping center. It painted the sky over a subdivision. Its reflection floated on the Neuse River. Within a few hundred yards, flames licked the air, which smelled sharp and wooden.

Tons of railroad ties, many of them treated with toxic creosote, had caught fire early Saturday morning at National Salvage & Service on Old Mount Olive Highway in Dudley, near Goldsboro. It was still burning Sunday afternoon, although firefighters reported the blaze was under control. Fire officials have yet to announce a cause of the fire. There were no reports of injuries or evacuations.

Headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana, National Salvage & Service recycles old railroad ties, either for reuse by rail companies or for landscape timbers, according to state records. Ties that are in poor condition are chipped and sold as boiler fuel to local power co-generation plants.

What is creosote?

Creosote is a mixture of hundreds to thousands of chemicals, extracted from beechwood, creosote bush or coal. It is used as a wood preservative, primarily for railroad ties and utility poles, which keeps insects from destroying them. When creosote is extracted from coal, it contains many contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also known as PAHs. These hydrocarbons are widespread in the environment: diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, even charbroiled food.)

Coal tar creosote ignites easily. The EPA lists it as a “probable human carcinogen” for long-term exposure, either in contaminated drinking water, skin contact — especially for workers who handle the substance — and inhalation.

In the short-term, exposure to smoke containing creosote can irritate the lung, throat and sinuses. Aside from the creosote, the wood smoke from the National Salvage & Service fire contains particulate matter, including very fine particles known as PM 2.5. The figure 2.5 is the size of the particle in microns; these particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and are invisible without a microscope.

The air quality in Goldsboro on Saturday, including PM 2.5 levels, was listed as “moderate,” according to IQ Air. (The state Division of Air Quality does not have an ambient air monitoring station in Goldsboro.) A stiff breeze, with gusts over 13 mph, helped disperse the smoke, but areas closest to the fire likely had higher PM 2.5 levels.

Creosote does not dissolve in water, and when it seeps into soil and groundwater, it usually forms an immobile tarry mass.

This map shows the racial, ethnic and economic make up of the Census Block Groups near the National Salvage & Service site. Areas in pink are designated as “potentially underserved areas” by NC DEQ. (Base map and data: DEQ Community Mapping System)


What is near the fire?

The 100-acre facility is bordered on three sides by predominantly non-white, low income communities. These neighborhoods are also home to many other pollution sources, including a poultry processing plant, two sand and gravel mines, and a 25-acre former open dump, according to the DEQ Community Mapping System.

The Neuse River is just a half mile from the site. National Salvage & Service has a state permit to discharge stormwater — runoff — to a tributary of the Neuse, state records show. The Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources — DEMLR — oversees the stormwater program; it listed no violations for the company in the last 10 years, when it received its initial permit. The latest permit renewal occurred in 2020.

The Neuse River at Old Waynesborough Park. This view is looking south toward the site of the fire. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)