In 1978, a contractor working for Ward Transformer Sales and Service near RDU illegally dumped 30,000 gallons of toxins along 200 miles of roadsides in 14 counties.
Nearly three decades later, fish-consumption advisories are still expanding throughout the Triangle's watersheds, and public officials are still defending their cleanup plans.
"The state and the EPA seriously dropped the ball on this issue by not requiring a mandatory cleanup and full remediation of the Ward Transformer site more than 20 years ago," says Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. "Instead, they allowed this contamination to spread downstream by only putting in minimal requirements, which were not followed or adequately enforced."
This spring, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services extended fish consumption advisories in Crabtree Creek, from Lake Crabtree to the Neuse River, a distance of about 20 miles. As of March 31, anglers are advised to limit their consumption of carp, catfish and largemouth bass from Crabtree Creek to no more than one meal per month. Test results show that fish in Crabtree Creek contain toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been leaking for decades from the Ward Transformer site on Mt. Herman Road in Wake County.
The advisory extension comes on the heels of similar restrictions on Lake Crabtree, Brier Creek, Little Brier Creek and the Brier Creek reservoir, areas where the contamination is so concentrated that the state advises people to refrain from eating any fish whatsoever from those waterways.
The Ward site cleanup is also the subject of an upcoming public meeting. On Wednesday, June 21, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will hold an information session in Morrisville to explain the cleanup process, says EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles; downstream remediation will also likely come up.
The rationale for extending the consumption advisory stems from recent samplings, which indicate that fish contamination has spread further downstream than expected. The state is setting a schedule for more downstream sampling to confirm the extent of contamination in the Neuse River. It remains to be seen whether further advisories will be issued for parts of the Neuse itself.
"Many Wake citizens still don't know about the fish consumption advisories--people need to be made aware of this," says Naujoks, a member of the Joint Local Government Taskforce handling the Ward site. "The Crabtree watershed is a public resource that in many ways has been stolen from Wake County citizens, who can no longer eat the fish in these water bodies without fear of contamination."
Federal and state officials are now assessing the impact of the Ward site pollution on downstream waterways in Wake County. According to Luis Flores, the EPA's project manager for the Ward site cleanup, tests of the soil and sediment from Lake Crabtree, Brier Creek, Crabtree Creek, Brier Creek Reservoir and the Neuse River indicate the presence of what federal regulators consider insignificant levels of PCB contamination.
Fish tissue testing, however, has consistently shown toxic levels in all locations examined by state and federal agencies. State officials are currently working on a more extensive sampling schedule, the results of which will help determine any remediation plans beyond the Ward site.
Task force member Sherry Johnson is not surprised by new findings showing that the contamination is more extensive than anticipated. "Given the nature of PCB migration and the length of time that the Ward site has gone unaddressed, I would be surprised and find it a bit suspect if we weren't seeing these sorts of findings," Johnson says.
The federal government banned production of PCBs in 1977 after research concluded that the chemicals were linked to neurological and immunological problems in children, as well as changes in liver function and cancer.
When the contaminated soil from the roadside cleanup was deposited in a landfill in an African-American community in Warren County, the resulting controversy came to be known as one of the first substantiated cases of environmental racism. The site was detoxified in 2003, but the landfill remains a source of political and racial controversy.
PCBs accumulate in the body and do not degrade, which means that higher concentrations of the toxin can be expected in organisms higher up in the food chain, including humans. According to toxicologist and task force member Jim Sherman, no one has studied PCB contamination in people with known exposure from eating fish from Lake Crabtree, nor have any tests been conducted on workers at the Ward facility.
The EPA plans to conduct a baseline ecological assessment and feasibility study to address the broader implications of the Ward site PCB contamination, including the effect PCBs are having on non-aquatic vertebrates downstream, Flores says, but it is unclear whether the study will include testing on humans.
EPA officials declined to speculate on when fish in the Crabtree watershed will again be safe to eat.
EPA officials will discuss the Ward site on Wednesday, June 21, at 7 p.m. at the Morrisville Commerce Building, 260 Town Hall Drive, Morrisville.