Newsline special report: A community inundated with industrial waste
[Editor’s note: This story on water pollution is among several that NC Newsline is publishing about environmental justice issues and cumulative pollution impacts in Robeson County. Read previous stories in the series about biogas projects near Maxton and a proposed private military training site a few miles from Rowland. Look for more stories about air pollution, hazardous waste, hurricane threats — and potential community solutions to these issues — through the end of May. Funding for this project comes from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.]
Fifty-nine thousand tons of carbon dioxide. Fifteen tons of hazardous air pollutants. Another seven tons of ultra-fine particulate matter that can burrow deep into the lungs, invade the bloodstream and cause babies to be born too early and too small.
Thirteen unlined dumps, their decades-old contents seeping into the groundwater. Fourteen hazardous waste sites, leaving behind a cancer-causing soup of solvents and pesticides, oils and dyes. Millions of gallons of urine and feces excreted daily by 300,000 hogs, plus an untold number of chickens and turkeys.
Drinking water, rivers and streams contaminated with toxic PFAS – per and polyfluoroalkyl compounds. Swaths of land clearcut for wood pellets. Flooding that without forests to absorb the water, wipes out entire neighborhoods.
Every day, Robeson County’s 116,328 residents endure these many sources of contamination. Donna Chavis is a Pembroke native and Lumbee tribe member. Chavis co-leads and belong to several environmental groups in Robeson County, including the Red Tail Hawk Collective and the Southeast Coalition for Clean Energy. “Robeson County is ground zero for environmental justice,” she said.
These injustices take the form of cumulative impacts, defined as the disproportionate concentration of polluters in one community. This clustering is not an accident. The neighborhoods are usually nonwhite, low-income, or both. In Robeson County, this describes nearly every census block group. There are few places where people of color can escape the pollution.
Nationwide, discrimination by whites historically forced nonwhites, especially Native Americans and Black people, onto the worst-quality, often flood-prone land – in Robeson County, the swamps. In modern times, polluters often locate in those neighborhoods because land is cheap. They know state regulators issue permits to nearly every applicant, even over the objections of residents, and seemingly in disregard of federal civil rights laws.
“Systemic factors in society have driven the disproportionate concentration of environmental burdens” into these communities, said Charles Lee, senior policy adviser to the EPA Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. The author of Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, Lee spoke to the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board at a meeting earlier this spring. “There are vestiges of systemic racism and historic discrimination.”
Residents of these underserved communities have long complained that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t use its full legal authority to deny permits for facilities that would further burden their neighborhoods. “‘We don’t have authority’ is a statement, not a description of why they don’t have the authority,” Chavis said. “There are laws regarding state agencies that receive federal funds.”
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, entities that receive federal funds, like DEQ, can’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin — intentionally or unintentionally. “Environmental justice and Title VI are both rooted in the same basic principle that no person should bear an unfair share of harm on account of their race, color or national origin,” reads a 2010 memorandum from the US Department of Justice. “…Title VI enforcement may resolve problems that other laws cannot.”
Title VI enforcement though, is a protracted process that places the legal onus on residents, many of whom don’t have money to hire attorneys to represent them. This leaves these complex issues to nonprofit law firms, which are frequently inundated with cases. Earlier this month, residents of Robeson, Sampson and Duplin counties filed a Title VI complaint against DEQ over the absence of adequate regulations for major poultry operations. The residents are being represented by the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School.
As for DEQ, it contends that its statutory authority to deny a permit based on cumulative impact is limited. Only a state statute involving the siting of solid waste facilities, such as landfills, authorizes DEQ to account for cumulative impacts in permit denials.
“DEQ is committed to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” wrote DEQ Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Sharon Martin in an email to NC Newsline. She said DEQ consults a pair of recent federal documents, EPA Legal Tools to Advance Environmental Justice: Cumulative Impacts Addendum Principles for Addressing Environmental Justice Concerns in Air Permitting December 2022, “as appropriate during permitting processes.”
Residents have prevailed in a few North Carolina Title VI cases. In 2018, environmental justice groups, represented by Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin, attorneys with the Julius C. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, then housed at UNC Chapel Hill, reached a settlement with DEQ over the agency’s permitting process for hog farms. But that legal battle took four years. And even though there have been some advances — it’s now easier to file a complaint anonymously, for example — the upshot is that the lives of residents living close to these enormous hog operations have not markedly improved. (And Haddix and Dorosin lost their jobs. The UNC Board of Governors fired them after banning advocacy work by university centers, especially those that sue other parts of state government.)
But in 2021, the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit firm, filed yet another Title VI complaint against the agency over the permitting of biogas systems on hog farms. That case is in informal negotiation, according to the EPA.
“When we talk about a resource, we’re not valuing the source but valuing the dollar,” Chavis said. “We don’t own the Earth. We are her caretakers.”
The cumulative impacts of water pollution: Toxic PFAS, slaughter plant discharge contaminating waterways
It’s five o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the end of first shift, and Robeson County sheriff’s deputies are directing traffic along Highway 71, near the entrance to the Mountaire plant in Lumber Bridge. At a separate entrance, idle diesel trucks — their exhaust systems puffing black smoke — stuffed with live chickens, who look bewildered, as this road trip is the first time most of them have been outside.
Mountaire’s Lumber Bridge facility is the largest poultry slaughter plant in the world. It “processes” – a more polite term than “kills” – more than a half-million birds per day.
These plants have to find a way to dispose of the waste that is a byproduct of slaughter – urine, feces, blood. In towns, such as Siler City, where there is no room for a sprayfield, Mountaire operates a wastewater treatment plant and then discharges that effluent into the public sewer. In Lumber Bridge, though, Mountaire treats the waste onsite, then sprays up to 2.5 million gallons per day via vast irrigation systems onto 537 acres of farm fields. Excess waste is stored in a 19.8-million-gallon lagoon.
Mountaire’s Lumber Bridge facility is the largest poultry slaughter plant in the world. It “processes” more than a half-million birds per day.
But treated wastewater isn’t clean, just less dirty. It’s certainly not drinkable.
On this Wednesday afternoon, the spray guns were firing, as fountains of reeking wastewater arced into the air. When wastewater seeps into the soil, it eventually reaches the groundwater. From there, depending on the fractures and folds in the underground aquifers, it can reach private drinking water wells, contaminating them with nitrite — a form of nitrogen that at high levels can harm human health — and bacteria.
And when the wastewater enters the surface water, the high nitrogen concentrations encourage the growth of algae. “The swamp will be covered in duckweed” — a type of aquatic plant, said Jeff Currie, the Lumber Riverkeeper. “It tanks the levels of oxygen,” which can kill fish and other organisms.
Currie has sampled waterways near the plant and sprayfields. Upstream of the plant, results showed no or very low nitrogen levels, compared to 40 to 50 times higher downstream. Concentrations of E. coli, which indicates the presence of fecal bacteria, were 150 “colony forming units” upstream and 12,000 downstream, Currie said. (DEQ has not established a surface water standard for E. coli; instead, the agency uses an outdated standard that measures fecal coliform. The EPA recommends using E. coli levels to determine human health risks.)
When Mountaire applied to renew its water quality permit, public comment prompted DEQ to require additional groundwater monitoring, as well as two surface water monitoring stations, both upstream and downstream on Big Marsh Swamp.
Old Alamac American Knits and Active Energy Renewable Power facility: 90% of 1,700 residents are non-white; two-thirds are low-income.
In south Lumberton, neighborhoods have been pummeled by hurricane flooding, air pollution and now, PFAS entering the waterways.
After 55 years Alamac American Knits closed its factory in 2017, putting 154 people out of work. What remained was the toxic legacy of textile manufacturing: Groundwater and surface water contaminated with volatile organic compounds and PFAS, Currie, the Lumber Riverkeeper, and the Southern Environmental Law Center later found.
PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are widespread in the environment. They have been linked to myriad serious health problems: kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, liver and thyroid disorders, decreased immune response, fetal development problems and high blood pressure during pregnancy. They are found in many consumer products, such as nonstick cookware, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, carpet, furniture and clothing. PFAS, of which there at least 10,000 types, enter the environment often through manufacturing processes and landfills.
Shortly after Alamac closed, Active Energy Renewable Power (AERP) purchased the property to manufacture wood pellets, another polluting industry. Aided by $500,000 in taxpayer-funded incentives, it would have emitted 56 tons of pollutants per year in this majority nonwhite, low-income community, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, greenhouse gases, formaldehyde and benzene. VOCs and NOx combined create ground-level ozone, another harmful pollutant.
DEQ approved an air permit over residents’ fervent objections, but a series of financial, technical and legal problems ultimately doomed the project. The company moved to Maine, and never received the North Carolina economic incentives because it didn’t create any jobs.
Despite a groundwater extraction and treatment system installed by Alamac, the VOCS and PFAS continues to enter Jacobs Branch, a tributary of the Lumber River. Sampling of discharge from the site conducted by DEQ and the new property owners, Phoenix Investors, last fall shows cumulative levels of PFAS thousands of times above health advisory goals and proposed drinking water maximums.
While the City of Lumberton’s water intake is upstream of the plant, the surface water still presents risks. “Our biggest concern is about people fishing,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued AERP on behalf of the Winyah Rivers Alliance over the illegal discharge. (Now that AERP has sold the property, SELC has asked a judge to dismiss its complaint. AERP wants Winyah to pay its attorney’s fees.) “And we need to keep it from entering drinking water wells.”
The full extent of the PFAS contamination is unknown, Gisler said. State regulators are gathering more information.
Phoenix Investors has proposed stopping the discharge into Jacobs Branch altogether. Last month, DEQ approved the company’s request for a 90-day pause on the extraction and treatment system while the company explores other methods of addressing the PFAS contamination.
PFAS and GenX contamination in drinking water wells: Multiple census block groups, total population 8,424, ranging from 56% to 89% nonwhite and 42% to 64% low-income
St. Pauls, in northern Robeson County, is 12 miles from Chemours’s Fayetteville Works plant, which discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River for decades. Even though St. Pauls doesn’t get its drinking water from the Cape Fear, many of the residents’ private wells are contaminated with GenX, one of many types of toxic PFAS, state data show. Areas near Parkton, McMillan and Tolarsville also had detections.
The contamination likely spread through the air. State regulators have found when GenX mixes with rain and then falls to the earth, it can pollute the groundwater. Since drinking water wells rely on groundwater, that’s likely how the wells in St. Pauls became contaminated.
The EPA and the state have set a health advisory goal of no more than 10 parts per trillion of GenX in drinking water. (The EPA is strengthening its rules regarding contaminant levels of GenX and PFAS, but they have yet to be formally adopted.) Of the 451 wells sampled in St. Pauls, more than one-third contained some level of GenX. The maximum concentration detected was 370 parts per trillion; the minimum, 0.4 ppt.
Some wells also contained PFOA and PFOS. They are known as “legacy compounds” because even though their manufacturing has been largely phased out, they persist in the environment. Because of these compounds’ toxicity, the EPA is proposing maximum allowable levels of just 4 ppt in drinking water. In St. Pauls, roughly a quarter of the 18 wells sampled for the compounds had levels higher than the proposed maximum — some 11 to 16 times higher. Many of these households could qualify for free treatment systems on their wells or municipal connections, depending on the contaminant concentrations.
Even people on public water supplies can have these compounds in their drinking water. Sampling conducted by the scientists within the NC PFAST Network in 2019 showed that in raw water — which has not yet gone through the treatment system — the City of Lumberton had levels of PFOA and PFOS at 12.1 ppt and 7.3 ppt, respectively. That’s up to three times higher than the EPA’s proposed maximum. (Fairmount, Pembroke and Red Springs had no detectable levels of the compounds, according to the NC PFAST Network.)
Last fall, the Department of Environmental Quality resampled 50 public water supplies, including Lumberton’s. Results showed that Lumberton’s treated water — that which flows through household taps — had levels of PFOA and PFOS above the EPA’s proposed maximum, an average of 9.7 ppt and 6.5 ppt, respectively.
The City of Lumberton sources its drinking water from deep groundwater wells and the Lumber River. It’s unclear where the PFOA and PFOS came from (the drinking water intake is upstream of the former Alamac plant) but given the widespread nature of the contamination, it could have originated from an industrial source or even the Lumberton airport if it ever conducted firefighting training exercises using PFAS-containing foam.
Lumberton utilities officials could not be reached for comment.
The NC PFAST Network also found PFOA in the raw water in the Robeson County water system at 4 ppt, right at the EPA’s proposed maximum. Two other types of the compounds were also detected, but the EPA has not proposed rules for them yet. However, because these compounds share similar chemical characteristics, it’s likely they all have some level of toxicity. Robeson County sources its water from wells and sells it other municipalities, including Maxton, Parkton, St. Pauls and Fairmont, state records show.
However, billions of dollars in federal funding, passed through to the states, could help these water systems, especially smaller ones like those in Robeson County, install expensive treatment systems to reduce or eliminate PFAS from their drinking water. (Both the House and Senate versions of a new state budget include some funding for this purpose, but far from enough to fully address the problem.)
These sources of water pollution are among the highest profile, but certainly not the only ones. There are municipal wastewater treatment plants and leaking underground and aboveground petroleum tanks discharging into surface and ground water. Duke Energy’s former coal-fired power plant, Weatherspoon, has been demolished, but decades of ash storage in unlined ponds has contaminated the groundwater onsite with mercury, boron, barium, arsenic and nickel. The plant’s old cooling pond flows to the Lumber River; its ash pond is near Jacobs Branch. The census block group that includes the plant is is nearly two-thirds low-income and nonwhite.
Anita Cunningham, who is Black, lives in Robeson County. At a recent forum sponsored by the governor’s office, she pleaded with state officials to “listen to the voices of the impacted.”
“I am tired of being a test subject,” Cunningham said.