Living on the edge | News Feature | Indy Week
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"This is our family, and this is all we have, and it's already destroyed, you can't drink the water. And if you do drink that water, it's going to be a slow death."

Living on the edge 

Residents endure legacy of old Chatham County landfill

The old Chatham County landfill, above, sits within 100 feet of several residents' homes. It has leaked contamination into nearby drinking water wells.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

The old Chatham County landfill, above, sits within 100 feet of several residents' homes. It has leaked contamination into nearby drinking water wells.

Ernest Alston grew up on East Alston Road, where as a boy he picked cotton and played among the brambles and the blackberries with his cousins, brothers and sisters.

He is among four generations of Alstons to have inherited this land from Allen Alston, a freed slave who, after emancipation, bought the acreage from his owner, Gid Alston. More than 140 years later, this Alston Road community is home to 47 families—45 of them African-American—and many of them were here long before 1973, when Chatham County dug an 80-acre dump in the neighborhood.

That dump, closed since 1993, has leaked cancer-causing contaminants into many residents' drinking water wells and has intermittently exceeded limits for explosive methane gas. As for Chatham County, officials not only ignored the drinking water issues for six years, they recently proposed East Alston Road for yet another landfill.

At the top of the old dump—a man-made mountain with a plastic cap covering tons of waste—lies a grassy plateau flanked by deciduous pines and sturdy hardwood trees. Ernest, now 65, and his wife, Ann, bought 78 acres of nearby land from his uncle in 1968—five years before the dump invaded—and built a brick ranch home that now sits within 100 feet of its western edge. His cousins and aunts and uncles also live in the neighborhood, some of them even closer to the mound of trash.

"What a shame," he says, shaking his head as he stares at the clay soil peeking through patches of grass and weeds.

Located five miles west of Pittsboro, the dump closed 18 years ago after federal regulations required all existing unlined landfills to stop operating and that future landfills be lined as a barrier between soil and waste.

On the surface, the old trash is no longer visible, just deer droppings and skeletal fragments of recently devoured critters. And if you didn't see the occasional orange marker along the landfill border reading "Edge of Waste," it could be easy to forget what brews below your feet.

But Ernest's first cousin, Raymond Alston, 69, knows what's down there, and not only because his backyard overlooks the dump. Raymond worked there for more than 10 years, and he vividly recalls what was disposed into that hole in the ground. "Every plant around the county—textiles over in Moncure and chicken houses in Siler—sent their trash to us."

For 20 years, residents nearest the dump endured noise and stench. "Heavy equipment moving all the time. They had to unload trucks, bulldoze piles of garbage and whatnot," Ernest recalls.

And then there were rats.

There were so many rats that Ernest's yard, and those of his family members, looked like a scene from a horror movie. "You could see them running across the yard; it was an abundance of rats more than you'd see anywhere else," Ernest says. "They'd dig holes, especially near the driveway for some reason, and with the addition of rats suddenly we noticed the snakes were hanging around."

And then there were buzzards.

"The bad thing about the buzzards was they would come over and roost in your backyard, so to speak. We had them roosting behind our house, and they left droppings all over the place," Ernest says.

And feral animals.

"Suddenly we had wild cats and dogs take up here. It was dangerous to walk out in the woods anywhere around the property unless you had a gun," he recalls. "It was a bunch of things you never thought about with a landfill—things you just had to deal with, because you had no choice."

As a child, Linette Tyson, who is Ernest's cousin, often walked around the landfill on Sunday evenings with her family.

"You would see everything that had been dumped—panty hose and yarn from the textile factory, carcasses of chickens, cows and dogs."

"The stench in that hole was so bad you had to wear a mask," adds Raymond. "They'd bring in stuff that would be loose on the back of trucks. It was coming from the chemical plants, like Allied Chemical in Moncure [the plant specialized in fibers], and the smell would take your breath away.

"All that stuff seeped into the ground, and you would see the water running off the landfill and into the creek," he said. "When we was kids we'd drink out of the fresh springs. You'd be a fool to do that now."

Now if you lived near the old dump, you might be a fool to even drink what comes out of your kitchen faucet.

Five years after the landfill closed, monitoring wells indicated that the dump was leaking liquid laced with hazardous chemicals into groundwater at levels exceeding state and federal standards. The contaminated liquid was draining toward the East Alston neighborhood and its private drinking water wells, according to a 1999 report by engineer T. Patrick Shillington with Engineering and Environmental Science Company, which was hired by the county to study the contamination.

The contaminants included the carcinogen vinyl chloride, which was detected at levels 35 times higher than the state's acceptable level. Long-term vinyl chloride exposure can lead to "rare cancer of the liver," according to the EPA.

However, Chatham County did not aggressively pursue cleaning up the contamination and did little to try to contain it. Only when state regulators intervened did the county begin to address the problem.

In July 1998, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) sent then-Chatham County Solid Waste Manager Robert Holden a letter stating the county was required to hire an engineer and geologist to develop a "plan of action" in monitoring the unlined dump site.

Hydrologist Mark Poindexter, DENR's branch manager for the Division of Waste Management, informed Holden that the dump's nearest monitoring well, which was less than 75 feet from the drinking well belonging to Raymond Alston, "indicates levels of chemical constituents exceeding water quality standards."

Part of the problem stemmed from the county's failure to put a buffer between the dump and nearby homes. Shillington informed the county that a solid waste landfill should have a 500-foot buffer between it and residential property lines. But in the western corner of the landfill, the county had dumped within 75 to 150 feet of John Alston's and Raymond Alston's homes.

"They shouldn't have dumped right to the edge of the property," Ernest says. "If they had created their own buffers within the landfill, and not come right up to the edge of the landfill, those wells wouldn't have been so contaminated."

The county became aware of contaminants in drinking water wells in 1998, but it took six years for officials to provide the Tyson and Alston families with alternate sources of drinking water.

In the late '90s, former public works director Ronald D. Singleton notified Raymond by letter that his drinking water exceeded federal groundwater standards for the chemical compound 1,2-Dichloroethane (used to produce vinyl chloride) by almost 12 times. The EPA warns that people who drink water contaminated with 1,2-Dichloroethane over a long time can develop cancer. The county then provided Raymond with bottled water and a charcoal water filtration system for his well.

The county had additional data from monitoring wells showing that dangerous levels of contaminants were leaching into residential water supplies. Solid Waste Manager Holden sent letters to Linette Tyson, Raymond and John advising them to relocate their wells. But Tyson informed county attorney Robert L. Gunn that the county should dig her family a new well if contaminants from the landfill endangered the drinking water.

Yet it wasn't until 2004 that the county finally dug new wells for the Tysons, Raymond and John—the households with the three closest drinking wells to the landfill.

In spite of newly dug wells, the residents' drinking water woes were not over. Within a week of digging the new wells, the drinking water tested high in toluene and carbon disulfide. Toluene is a clear liquid that smells like paint thinner. If inhaled, exposure can lead to tiredness, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea and hearing and color vision loss. Carbon disulfide has an ether-like scent, and exposure to it can be life-threatening since it immediately affects the nervous system.

Elizabeth R. Stout, chief environmental consultant with the Engineering and Environmental Science Company, reported to Holden shortly after testing the new wells that the contaminants did not come from the landfill but from the solvent and plastic pipe for the well pump system. Wherever the contamination came from, the water was not fit to drink.

Chatham County Environmental Health Director Holly Coleman emailed Holden in July 2004, stating, "If the toluene levels in the John Alston and Mary Tyson wells are greater than allowable in the resamples, these wells will be required to be abandoned."

Meanwhile, Raymond's new well continued to test high in arsenic. James Kivett with the Chatham County Health Department under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported to the county that, "arsenic and lead were found in the water of [Raymond Alston]. Drinking the water on a daily basis for several years is associated with a 1 in 750 cancer risk."

The EPA has identified arsenic as a human carcinogen. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer of the skin, bladder, lung, liver, kidney, prostate, breast, colon and stomach. It can also damage the nervous system.

That summer, water from Tyson's well also tested above state groundwater standards for arsenic, according to samples taken by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

From April 2004 until midsummer 2005, the county continued to sample the new wells with varying results. In August 2005, Jimmie W. Greer with the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Aquifer Protection Section, sent Chatham County Environmental Health Director Holly Coleman an email advising the county to sample the wells annually and forward the results to property owners. Although many residents had lived in the neighborhood for years before the county built the landfill, Greer, in essence, blamed them for living there, writing, "When home/well owners buy or elect to live next to a land fill, they have to assume some kind of responsibility for their actions."

That October, due to contaminants still present in two of the new wells, the county finally agreed to install purification units for those wells. Each purification unit requires annual servicing. The systems call for an additive, Diamond Crystal Solar Salt, to soften the water and decrease its mineral content, which can damage household plumbing. The salts are added to the wells every three to five days, depending on the family's water usage. Each 40-pound bag costs $5.20, and the homeowners, not the county, pay for it.

"The purification systems were installed on these two wells by the county to remove naturally occurring minerals in the groundwater. Because the minerals were not related to groundwater contaminants and due to the fact that the wells are (upstream) from the landfill, the county did not assume responsibility for the operation or maintenance of the purification systems," said Dan LaMontagne, director of the county's Solid Waste Management Department.

The county's groundwater monitoring is performed twice a year, and testing of monitoring wells at the landfill and drinking water wells is scheduled for next month, LaMontagne told the Indy.

For Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost, testing wells and providing Solar Salt is not enough. "By testing the wells, we are only look[ing] at the symptoms and not addressing the real problem," she says.

Earlier this year at a Chatham County Solid Waste Advisory Council meeting, Tyson elaborated on her family's decade-long battle for clean drinking water. "The county has not tested our water since the systems were installed three years ago," she said. "My family also has to deal with the financial burden of filtering our water and the emotional stress of not knowing if the water is safe and when and if the county will take the remainder of our land for a buffer. We cannot afford to move. We will have to endure these hardships for the rest of our lives."

Bit by bit, the county has eaten into private land in order to put more space between the dump and the drinking water wells. Poindexter, the DENR hydrologist, informed the county in 1998 that it needed to increase buffer acreage to help protect the public health and give the county room to further investigate the groundwater contamination.

However, many of the Alstons were reluctant to surrender their property for the buffer acreage, so the county filed eminent domain proceedings with the Superior Court in Chatham County; however, by 2002, those individual family members and property owners acquiesced to the county and sold their land.

The county purchased about half of John's 1.1-acre lot for the buffer, for $6,280. He says his parcel was appraised at $45,000. "My father and uncle fought that landfill, and it still went through; the county just took all of our land for buffers after they'd contaminated the soil," John says. "This won't stop with what they've taken—who knows how much more land they'll need?"

The county took 1.67 acres of Raymond Alston's land for buffer and, in return, relocated his trailer to a new parcel several hundred feet to the north. It took five years.

Disposing of the county's waste has been a constant issue for commissioners, county managers and the Solid Waste Advisory Committee. The county's minutes from the past 20 years indicate the primary motivation for constructing the first landfill—and most recently, considering where to build a new landfill—is money: finding the cheapest way of stashing the county's waste. To save money, the county wanted to build a new local landfill, and it considered acreage it had long been eyeing near East Alston Road.

In June 1992, county commissioners held public hearings on a new landfill. Residents in the East Alston neighborhood spoke against the siting of a new landfill at the same location of the old dump. Horace Mann, a dairy farmer and nearest neighbor to the landfill, stated, "It was time for someone else to have the burden of a landfill near them."

In the spring of 1993, Mark Ashness, consulting engineer with Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates, told county officials of their options in light of the federal and state mandates to close unlined landfills: build a new landfill operated by Chatham or construct a joint landfill with Lee County, which could save the county $4 million in initial landfill construction costs.

In August 1993, Ashness advised the commissioners to build a landfill adjacent to the existing dump. At a public hearing, Ernest asked Ashness if the existing landfill was the only site the county had considered. Minutes from that meeting read, "The public works director [Ashness] stated that it was."

Also present at the hearing was Linette Tyson, who asked the public works director why other sites were not being considered. Ashness replied that the main reason was that dirt from excavating the new landfill could be used to cover the dump. "The adjacent site is the most economical place from which to move this dirt," he said, adding, "There are already other facilities in this vicinity; it is centrally located; and the people in the county are used to this site."

Alston spoke up: "It just seems like someone has decided that perhaps this community is immune to this and that any time something is unwanted in the county it is dumped in this community," he said. "The people in this community would like the quality of life equal to others in the county."

While the commissioners were debating where to build a new landfill, none of the meeting minutes show any discussion of how these facilities were affecting the people of East Alston Road.

Eventually, commissioners opted to ship its trash elsewhere. Currently, Chatham contracts with Waste Management Inc. to send its waste to Sampson County.

Then last July, the county hired Dan LaMontagne as director of Solid Waste Management and Raleigh-based consultants Camp Dresser and McKee (CDM) to examine the possibility of building a new landfill in Chatham County. Last September, CDM presented the Chatham County Environmental Review Board with its findings: The county could could save an estimated $148 million to $195 million over 40 years if it sent its waste to a locally owned landfill.

There was a catch: The county needed 400 acres for the landfill so it could potentially receive up to 500 tons of waste per day from other counties. And that land, as Ernest and Ann Alston were shocked to learn last November, was within a one-mile radius of their home.

"I felt like they were just squeezing us in on every side," Ann said.

One of the proposed locations was on East Alston Road, where it dead-ends at homes that are less than 150 feet from the old dump. The new landfill would sandwich the community between new and old waste. Alston said his first thought was that "they [the county] just want to come back here. I felt that they were thinking, 'If we can't get them on one side, we'll get them on the other side.'"

Environmental Review Board member Steve Wing questioned CDM's selection and the absence of sites near U.S. 15-501, just south of Orange County. Sanford said that these sites were too close to schools, protected lands and the county line.

In January, Linette Tyson told the Solid Waste Advisory Committee that "the possibility of another landfill in our community is absolutely unreal."

Thirteen days after that meeting, commissioners voted 3-0 to stop the landfill siting process.

Bock told the Indy following the vote that when the community's situation came to his attention, he supported the board's looking at options that would "alleviate any inconvenience to the neighborhood around the old landfill."

While the Alston Road community was relieved, the fact remains that they still struggle with the contaminants of the old landfill. "I think the county is doing the minimum, if that, of what the state requires," said Ernest Alston.

The responsible thing to do, said Alston, would be for the county to test all private wells within the community. "They need to assure us, and assure all residents, that there isn't contamination in our drinking supplies."

LaMontagne said the county won't test other wells because they are upstream from the landfill and beyond the 500-foot buffer.

However, one UNC health expert says the county should show more concern for the residents.

"Given the uncertainties in understanding their [toxic groundwater materials] chronic effects on people, it's important for the exposed population to have some say in what is done," said Steve Wing, professor of epidemiology at UNC. "It seems that most of the time decisions are made entirely by authorities who don't have to live with the exposures."

On March 21, Brian Bock, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, proposed that the county pick up the cost for the filtration systems. The motion carried 3-1 with Commissioner Sally Kost opposing. She told the board that testing the wells was not enough. "We need to determine what needs to be done to clean up the old landfill site and do it," she said.

Residents agree. It's going to take more than bags of Solar Salt to ease the community's mind. Not only do they live with liquid waste leaching underground but there is another concern—highly explosive methane gas.

The state requires landfill operators to conduct quarterly monitoring of methane gas at closed landfills. In April 2009, DENR informed Chatham County officials they needed to implement a methane monitoring plan by June. In turn, the county installed 17 gas monitoring probes.

In August 2010, Richardson Smith Gardner & Associates, the engineering firm that is conducting the county's methane probes tests, issued its first report on readings from the landfill's 17 monitoring probes. The report revealed that five of the monitoring probes exhibited concentrations "equal to or exceeding the lower explosive limit." These levels were to be expected, the firm noted, because of the proximity to the waste.

Two months later, the firm did additional testing and found three of the monitoring probes registered at 100 percent levels for methane gas and another probe was at 42 percent.

The methane probes were tested on Feb. 12 of this year, and four of the monitoring probes were at the 100 percent level, and again on March 3, with three monitoring probes continuing to test at 100 percent levels.

Like groundwater, methane moves beneath the surface, and monitoring is required to ensure the methane does not migrate from the landfill to nearby residences. And to make matters worse, while the potentially explosive methane percolates beneath the landfill cap, two years ago the Chatham County Sheriff's Department installed a firing range at the eastern corner of the dump.

"Every night you got the sound of them shooting stuff up out there," Raymond says. "It seems like it's been one thing after another. You start to think it's all over, but then they built that firing range and you have a war going on outside your bedroom window at night."

So who's responsible for ensuring the public health and safety of East Alston Road residents? The EPA says that as long as state officials determine the county is complying with federal regulations, the landfill is beyond the EPA's jurisdiction.

Dawn Harris-Young, spokesperson for EPA's Region 4, which oversees North Carolina, says that "in dealing with landfills, DENR is delegated to do that work, and the EPA does not get involved before the state examines an issue."

DENR says the county is up-to-date on its semiannual groundwater monitoring, but these tests are conducted on the landfill's wells, not private drinking wells. In addition to the gas monitoring plan, the state has placed land-use restrictions on nine parcels of buffer properties. "Placing these land-use restrictions prevents future exposure to contamination. No wells can be installed with these restrictions in place," says Ervin Lane, DENR compliance hydrogeologist.

As for the county, four years ago, commissioners discussed running county water to East Alston Road for an estimated $56,880 to run about a mile of pipe. Concerned about the costs, the commissioners chose to install the filtration systems on residents' contaminated drinking wells and shelved the waterline option.

Meanwhile, the county did extend a water line from N.C. 902—southwest of Pittsboro—to serve the southwest water district. When commissioners approved extending the pipeline along U.S. 64 and west to Siler City, County Manager Charlie Horne said the logical direction was to head west from Alex Cockman Road. That road is across U.S. 64 from East Alston Road, but no water line was run to that neighborhood.

Horne says that at the time, the commissioners didn't feel that a water line was necessary since the residents whose wells were contaminated were relocated. "The investment in a line serving 10 or so residences—assuming all wanted to connect—is large," Horne said, "in the $300,000-plus range. Those residents would then have a monthly water bill to add to their expenses."

Some residents, such as Tyson, were upset that the county could come so close with a water line and not service their community. Bock said the current board of commissioners considered providing county water to East Alston Road, but "after speaking with some of the residents I found that having county water was not what they wanted."

Ernest agreed. "We do not want county water as long as our wells are safe," he said.

That's a big if.

John is contemplating moving from East Alston Road. "It gets to be too much," he says. "This is our family, and this is all we have, and it's already destroyed, you can't drink the water. And if you do drink that water, it's going to be a slow death."

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