When Ward Transformer began its toxic legacy in the northwestern crook of Wake County in 1964, the Interstate 540 loop wasn't even a twinkle in a transportation planner's eye, Raleigh-Durham Airport had not yet gone international, and the famous Angus Barn steakhouse was rebuilding after a fire burned it to the ground.
Forty-five years later, those amenities have arguably benefited Wake County except for one: Ward Transformer and its persistent PCB contamination that has escaped from the facility, riding downstream on soil and in fish in the Neuse River Basin.
The Neuse River Foundation is hosting a public meeting Thursday about the contamination, including an update on the cleanups at the Ward Transformer site and in the affected waterways: Little Brier Creek, Lower Brier Creek, Brier Creek, Brier Creek Reservoir, Lake Crabtree and Lower Crabtree Creek.
Organizers charge there are still many unknowns about the extent of PCB contamination in the creeks and reservoirs, where the state has posted advisories telling people not to eat the fish caught in those areas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some of the most highly contaminated waterways closest to the site are to be excavated—the soil will be shipped to a hazardous waste landfill—and restored. However, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Alissa Bierma says the cleanup method is unacceptable for areas farther downstream known as monitored natural recovery, in which environmental officials essentially wait-and-see how the contamination plays out.
The EPA and state have determined PCB levels in sediment in those farther-flung areas—Brier Creek Reservoir, Crabtree Creek and Lake Crabtree—are low enough, below 1 part per million, to warrant monitored natural recovery. However, there has been insufficient testing of those waterways, Bierma says, adding, "PCBs are unpredictable."
Bierma is concerned that a major flood or reservoir dredging, which is conducted as part of routine maintenance, could disturb contaminated sediment in the creekbed and lakebeds, bringing it to the surface or sending it farther downstream. "Contaminated sediment is the number one problem," she says, adding people shouldn't touch potentially contaminated sediment.
EPA spokesperson Laura Niles says additional sampling will be conducted before excavation of the most highly contaminated sediment begins, during the cleanup and afterward. Until the Ward site itself has been cleaned up, however, it's unknown how PCB levels downstream will be affected.
Nile Testerman, an environmental engineer with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, says the state is monitoring the cleanup. He acknowledges less than 10 sites have been sampled in Lake Crabtree, but adds there will be additional sediment and fish testing in all the waterways.
As part of the federal Superfund program, it will cost an estimated $60 million to clean up the Ward site—expected to be completed this summer—and another $6 million to tackle the creeks and reservoirs. The remediation will be paid for by more than a half-dozen potentially responsible parties, including Progress Energy, which, the EPA has determined, knowingly or unknowingly contributed to the contamination. For example, a town or company may have shipped materials containing PCBs to Ward that were then mishandled on the site.
It is unclear when the waterway cleanup will begin, as the EPA is still negotiating with the potentially responsible parties on the legal requirements to clean up the downstream sites, Niles says.
According to EPA documents, the cleanup itself could take three to five months. However, it could take at least 14 years for PCB levels to decrease to "acceptable levels" in fish in Brier Creek Reservoir. In Lake Crabtree, PCB levels in fish aren't expected to reach those levels for nearly a decade.
Manufacturing of PCBs was banned in the U.S. in 1977, but due to its widespread use in the 40 years before the ban, it persists in the environment. PCBs can cause cancer and liver damage in adults, and slowed development and low birth weight in infants.
"My hope is people will be concerned enough that we will not be the only voice saying the cleanup is not good enough. EPA needs to take another look," Bierma says.
What: Public meeting about PCBs in the Neuse River Basin and the EPA's Record of Decision for Ward Transformer site
When: Thursday, Feb. 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Where: Cameron Village Library, 1930 Clark Ave., Raleigh
Who: Hosted by the Neuse River Foundation, the meeting includes panelists Peter deFur of Environmental Stewardship Concepts; Drew Cade, Crabtree Lake manager; Kathleen Gray of the UNC Institute for the Environment
More info: Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Alissa Bierma, firstname.lastname@example.org
Previous Indy stories: