Long term mitigation for poisoned water still in question
by David Leone
STONY HILL — Those homeowners who haven’t yet found the toxin trichloroethylene (TCE) in their well water can breathe a little easier. The Environmental Protection Agency has finished testing well and groundwater and has found no new problems.
“There are no newly contaminated wells,” said Jennifer Wendel, remedial project manager in the federal superfund program. “No one else has been found to be drinking contaminated water.”
But for those in the affected areas, the EPA’s announcement Tuesday during a specially called session at Stony Hill Fire Department brought less consolation. The long term mitigation is still in question, there is little recourse for those sickened by the cancer-causing agents and those now hooked up to Aqua NC community wells were told that the private company can decide when to stop extra testing for TCE.
The EPA has extended 17,000 feet of water lines. Twenty-two residents are connected to those lines and the EPA has installed about 60 meter boxes located adjacent to the homes that have affected wells so they have the ability to connect to the water main in the future if they need to, regional director Ken Rhame told the 70 or so attendees.
The EPA finished its third round of well sampling last week, “We have a pretty good idea where the contamination is and who is at risk,” Rhame said.
If there’s no EPA meter box in your yard, you’re not at risk, he added.
Therefore, he continued, there are no further plans to install water lines in the community. Even if a new need were to develop, the situation with Aqua NC’s community well in Hasentree is that it’s at capacity and cannot support more hookups, Rhame said, until a water tower can be added to increase water pressure.
“EPA currently has no future plans for water line extensions in this area,” he added.
EPA moved quickly
Discovery of the TCE and, in some cases, the related chemical PCE (perchloroethylene), in about two dozen wells off Stony Hill Road and Bud Morris Road and in the Stonewalls subdivision occurred last summer. A smaller concentration of wells was later found contaminated in Mangum Estates two miles to the north. The concentrations varied, but many were deemed unsafe levels to drink or bathe.
The EPA quickly responded, installing water filters in some homes as a temporary measure and importing bottled water for homes where the filtering wasn’t enough. EPA also began constructing water lines to community wells in surrounding neighborhoods which tested clean, for the homes most affected that were within pipeline reach.
Considering that long term exposure can lead to increased risk for cancer and liver ailments, and the fact that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources first discovered contamination in a single well on Stony Hill Road eight years ago, it’s plausible that some long-term residents may develop health problems as a result.
Legal action against Flextronics, the company that contracted with the small Circuit Board Assembly company in Stony Hill believed to be the source of the contamination, is still possible.
Slower process now
The EPA effectively ends its emergency involvement with the Stony Hill situation and moves into the next phase of the mitigation — long term cleanup.
Wendel gave attendees a step-by-sep overview of the process for determining if federal funding can be attained for superfund cleanup.
Multiple criteria have to be met including, types of contamination, where it is going, how it is moving (groundwater, surface water, through soil or air contamination), how many people are affected, etc. And then, even if they decide that a site meets the criteria, there’s still a question of which projects to fund.
“We look at approximately 60 to 70 sites a year in region 4 (covering eight states),” Wendel said. Five to 10 percent of those sites are put on the EPA’s national priority list, from whence a federal committee and superfund administrator in Washington, D.C. decides which of those priority cleanups to fund.
That designation process takes months, or longer. Competition is tough — there are 1,700 potential cleanup sites in the country and 40 alone in North Carolina. Even if funded, cleanups can take up to 30 years, she added.
But superfund cleanup is not the only option, Wendel said. Other cleanup programs are in place at the federal and state level. North Carolina has a Brownfields program, for instance, though, that, too is underfunded.
Work on the long term evaluations has just begun. Wendel said that the EPA performed early site evaluations in April, and determined that the previously contaminated wells have remained at about the same levels for TCE contamination.
Expecting that deep well water contamination would eventually move upwards toward the surface, the EPA has also installed nine shallow temporary monitoring wells to look for shallow water contamination of TCE, putting the nine test wells in areas with no private wells and where there are shallow water discharges near creeks.
“We did find shallow contamination in most of the temporary wells we put in [and] along Churchill Road,” Wendel said.
Not the answers wanted
After the presentation, they took questions from the audience. One person asked how long Aqua NC will be required to do quarterly testing of its community wells, such as the well in Hasentree. Another person wanted to know if the EPA or state will continue to look for new contamination every couple of years in the area.
The answers seemed to unsettle the crowd. Aqua NC has agreed to do the quarterly testing, but is not required to by law. The company can end that process when it sees fit. And there is no further plan to test private wells for new contamination.
The EPA may, however, do more testing for wells they have determined are at-risk and follow up with individuals to see if already contaminated wells have worsened.
That testing will occur later this year, possibly in late summer, Wendel said. As if to assuage concerns about that movement, she added, “This isn’t the end of the investigation out here.”