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EPA holds hearing on Raleigh PCBs

The effects of contamination from the infamous Ward Transformer Co. plant are still being felt.

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Anglers frequenting the banks of Lake Crabtree will have an opportunity this week to ask officials how long they have to wait before they can resume eating what they catch. Crabtree and many of the surrounding waterways are under fish consumption advisories with no end-date in sight due to toxic contamination from the Ward Transformer Superfund Site in Raleigh.

The Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public question and answer session on Thursday, Jan. 19, regarding the cleanup and remediation of the polluted areas.

Testing by the EPA and the N.C. Department of Natural Resources over the last several years has found unacceptable levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) leaking from the Ward site on Mount Herman Road near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

PCBs are oily compounds with extremely high combustion points and were commonly used as coolants and lubricants in transformers until 1977, when research confirmed hazardous health effects and the U.S. government banned production of the chemical. PCBs can take decades to degrade in the environment and can be carried with runoff to new areas.

The Ward site gained notoriety in 1978 when 30,000 gallons of PCBs from the site were illegally dumped. Ward hired a contractor from a Jamestown, N.Y., trucking company to transport the PCB-laden oil for resale. When the EPA banned the resale of oil products containing PCBs, the contractor drove across 14 counties of North Carolina and sprayed the toxin along more than 200 miles of highway, necessitating a huge cleanup by the state.

The contaminated roadside soil was then removed and deposited in a landfill in Warren County, despite organized and vocal opposition from the area's predominantly African-American residents. Though the site was detoxified in 2003, the landfill remains a source of political and racial controversy, and is widely known as one of the first substantiated examples of environmental racism.

To date, the leak is responsible for contaminating the soil, water and fish of Brier Creek, Umstead Park, Lake Crabtree and upper portions of Crabtree Creek. The state Department of Health and Human Services issued the first fish consumption advisory for Little Brier Creek and Brier Creek Reservoir in 2003 after the EPA added the Ward site to the National Priorities Superfund List. Advisories for Brier Creek, Lake Crabtree and the upper portion of Crabtree Creek soon followed.

In August 2005 the EPA secured a settlement with four of the companies partially responsible for the pollution. The estimated cost of cleaning up the site itself is $5.2 million. The cost of remediation for the affected offsite areas is not yet known and will most likely be shouldered by taxpayers.

Many residents want to know why fish consumption advisories have only been issued in the last few years, given that governmental agencies had confirmed downstream waterway contamination as early as 1978. Toxicologist Jim Sherman, a member of the Joint Local Government Task Force on PCBs at the Ward Transformer Site, echoes that sentiment.

"For more than 20 years, people have been eating toxic fish caught in Lake Crabtree," he says. "I used to take my children fishing there and we would eat the fish. I don't understand why [local officials] would allow that to go on, knowing that the area was contaminated."

The EPA proposed a sampling plan in December that includes testing soil, water and fish from the unnamed tributaries leading into Little Brier Creek through Umstead Park to Crabtree Creek at the Lassiter Mill Dam. Officials assert that the dam at Lassiter Mill is a likely stopping point for the contamination, but not all task force members agree.

"As far as they've tested, they have found PCBs. We don't really know where it stops," Sherman says.

"I think the sampling plan is adequate," says Dean Naujoks, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper and task force member. "If they find contamination all the way to the dam, obviously that will warrant more testing further downstream."

Another concern is the absence of testing on animals other than those found in the water. Because PCBs accumulate up the food chain, there is a possibility that animals consuming organisms from contaminated areas have even higher levels of toxicity. According to Sherman, no one has studied PCB contamination in workers at the Ward facility or other people with known exposure.

The EPA Availability session will be held Thursday, Jan. 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Morrisville Commerce Building, 260 Town Hall Drive, Suite A, Morrisville.

ABCs of PCBs

The known effects of PCBs are:

  • Short-term exposure: acne-like rashes, skin pigmentation, hearing and vision problems, spasms
  • Chronic exposure: irritation of nose, throat and gastrointestinal tracts; changes in liver function; neurological and immunological problems in children; lowered birth weight in newborns
  • PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals
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