Home Part of States Newsroom
PFAS found beneath Tarheel Army Missile Plant, military failed to tell DEQ


PFAS found beneath Tarheel Army Missile Plant, military failed to tell DEQ

Apr 17, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Lisa Sorg
PFAS found beneath Tarheel Army Missile Plant, military failed to tell DEQ
In the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 4,000 people worked at the plant in Burlington, developing surface-to-air missile technology, crucial during the Cold War. (Photo: Western Electric and City of Burlington archives)

Groundwater beneath the former Tarheel Army Missile Plant in Burlington contains two types of toxic PFAS at levels hundreds, even thousands of times higher than proposed state standards. Yet the military never informed the Department of Environmental Quality of its findings — even though officials from both agencies attended the same meeting about contamination at the plant last fall.

Contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted the sampling in January 2023 as part of a nationwide study of military locations where PFAS might have been used. There are at least 15,000 types of PFAS compounds, among them PFOS and PFOA.

At the Tarheel Army Missile Plant PFOS was found in groundwater beneath the old chrome plating facility at 210 parts per trillion. PFOA was detected in groundwater at 39 ppt in the same location, documents obtained by Newsline show.

Groundwater near the missile plant’s old wastewater treatment facility also contained levels of both PFOA and PFOS far above proposed limits  — 93 ppt and 43 ppt, respectively.

The soil at the property also contained lower levels of PFAS.

DEQ and the Environmental Management Commission are still crafting groundwater standards for PFOS and PFOA, but the proposed levels are nearly undetectable:  0.7 ppt and 0.001 ppt, respectively.

In drinking water, the EPA recently established standards of 4 ppt for these two compounds and determined that no amount is safe.

Lally Laksbergs, environmental public affairs spokesperson for the U.S. Army Environmental Command, said “no state coordination was required” for the PFAS study, but given the findings, “the state will be a collaborating agency.”

The military didn’t inform DEQ because the goal of the sampling was to determine if there were sites that would require further investigation, Laksbergs said. “The property has not been in operation for several decades, which would mean no occurring release.”

The 22-acre plant lies fallow, but contamination, which includes cancer-causing solvents and benzene, continues to flow offsite into a nonwhite and low-income neighborhood. Residents have told Newsline that during heavy rains and the flooding that ensues, water from the plant runs into their yards. Previous testing showed that contaminated groundwater had migrated northwest from the plant, beneath several homes and had entered a neighborhood stream.

People wade or play in that stream — a nearby concrete duct from the plant is covered in graffiti — and it feeds a tributary of the Haw River, a drinking water supply. And many unsheltered people stay at the plant itself, and have access to tunnels that could contain contaminated water and soil.

An aerial view of the Tarheel Army Missile Plant shows areas of PFAS contamination: Buildings 11 and 20, the former plating area, outlined in pink; and Buildings 23, 29 and 30, the former wastewater treatment plant
This aerial view of the Tarheel Army Missile Plant shows areas of PFAS contamination: Buildings 11 and 20, the former plating area, outlined in pink; and Buildings 23, 29 and 30, the former wastewater treatment plant. The black arrows show the direction of the groundwater flow. The blue line represents a neighborhood stream that feeds Service Creek, a tributary of the Haw River. (Map: US Army Corps of Engineers report)

The former missile plant, known locally as Western Electric — a defense contractor that once operated there — is in a low-income, nonwhite neighborhood. A previous Newsline investigation revealed a pattern of incompetence, indifference and inertia by the military in cleaning up the site over the past 30 years. Since the mid-1990s, the military has spent upward of $2 million remediating the contamination, but a full cleanup never happened. A permanent solution has been stalled by funding shortfalls, bureaucracy, contractor disputes, failed treatment systems, and a lack of attention.

“The main message is this just further indicates a more robust cleanup needs to happen now at this site,” said Nick Torrey, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There’s a whole other class of very dangerous pollutants being sent downstream.”

Exposure to PFOA, PFOS and other similar compounds has been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies, high cholesterol, and kidney, testicular and other cancers.

Newsline provided the PFAS report to DEQ. Sharon Martin, the agency’s deputy secretary for public affairs, said given the current PFAS levels, DEQ “will be looking for appropriate actions” to be included into the military’s work plan to clean up the site. That work plan could be published later this year.

A three-story brick building, built in the 1950s, is part of the Tarheel Army Missile Plant in Burlington. It has two long rows of horizontal windows. Several scraggly trees are between the building and the grassy back yards of residents. A child's beach ball -- yellow, green, and orange -- sits in the yard.
The Tarheel Army Missile Plant in Burlington abuts the backyards of a low-income and community of color on Hilton Road. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Omega Wilson is an environmental advocate in Alamance County and co-founder of the West End Revitalization Association in Mebane. He has long been concerned about the contaminants at the TAMP. “It’s not just PFAS, but the asbestos, the leads, the old pipes — the unknown chemicals,” Wilson said. “We need more outreach to the people in the neighborhood.”

The various military reports about the site illustrate how competing and overlapping studies fail to capture the full scope of the contamination.

In May 2023, military contractors Terracon and Northwind Jacobs delivered a separate 2,200-page report, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Military Command, which is in charge of the cleanup. That “Final Remediation Investigation Report” was based on sampling conducted in 2022 and excluded PFAS.

The next month  military contractor Arcadis delivered its findings about the presence of PFAS at the plant to the Corps’ Baltimore division.

On Nov. 30 2023 — nearly six months after the PFAS report had been delivered, representatives from the U.S. Military Command, DEQ, the EPA, Alamance County, the City of Burlington, and federal and state health officials met in Mebane to discuss the contamination at the plant and ways to expedite a cleanup.

Newsline attended that meeting; no one mentioned that PFAS had been detected at the property. (Disclosure: Lisa Sorg served on a panel at the event.)

“Different studies aren’t talking to each other,” Torrey of the SELC said. “This does a disservice to the community and downstream users.”

Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton told Newsline she plans to sample the neighborhood stream for PFAS, possibly as early as this week.

Military contractors will take more samples at the plant, Laksbergs of the U.S. Army Military Command said, “to better determine the source and size of concern.” These findings will be reviewed with DEQ, Laksbergs said, and the cleanup schedule will be public.