Ernest Alston grew up on East Alston Road, where as a boy he picked cotton and played among the brambles and the blackberries with his cousins, brothers and sisters.
He is among four generations of Alstons to have inherited this land from Allen Alston, a freed slave who, after emancipation, bought the acreage from his owner, Gid Alston. More than 140 years later, this Alston Road community is home to 47 families—45 of them African-American—and many of them were here long before 1973, when Chatham County dug an 80-acre dump in the neighborhood.
That dump, closed since 1993, has leaked cancer-causing contaminants into many residents' drinking water wells and has intermittently exceeded limits for explosive methane gas. As for Chatham County, officials not only ignored the drinking water issues for six years, they recently proposed East Alston Road for yet another landfill.
At the top of the old dump—a man-made mountain with a plastic cap covering tons of waste—lies a grassy plateau flanked by deciduous pines and sturdy hardwood trees. Ernest, now 65, and his wife, Ann, bought 78 acres of nearby land from his uncle in 1968—five years before the dump invaded—and built a brick ranch home that now sits within 100 feet of its western edge. His cousins and aunts and uncles also live in the neighborhood, some of them even closer to the mound of trash.
"What a shame," he says, shaking his head as he stares at the clay soil peeking through patches of grass and weeds.
Located five miles west of Pittsboro, the dump closed 18 years ago after federal regulations required all existing unlined landfills to stop operating and that future landfills be lined as a barrier between soil and waste.
On the surface, the old trash is no longer visible, just deer droppings and skeletal fragments of recently devoured critters. And if you didn't see the occasional orange marker along the landfill border reading "Edge of Waste," it could be easy to forget what brews below your feet.
But Ernest's first cousin, Raymond Alston, 69, knows what's down there, and not only because his backyard overlooks the dump. Raymond worked there for more than 10 years, and he vividly recalls what was disposed into that hole in the ground. "Every plant around the county—textiles over in Moncure and chicken houses in Siler—sent their trash to us."
For 20 years, residents nearest the dump endured noise and stench. "Heavy equipment moving all the time. They had to unload trucks, bulldoze piles of garbage and whatnot," Ernest recalls.
And then there were rats.
There were so many rats that Ernest's yard, and those of his family members, looked like a scene from a horror movie. "You could see them running across the yard; it was an abundance of rats more than you'd see anywhere else," Ernest says. "They'd dig holes, especially near the driveway for some reason, and with the addition of rats suddenly we noticed the snakes were hanging around."
And then there were buzzards.
"The bad thing about the buzzards was they would come over and roost in your backyard, so to speak. We had them roosting behind our house, and they left droppings all over the place," Ernest says.
And feral animals.
"Suddenly we had wild cats and dogs take up here. It was dangerous to walk out in the woods anywhere around the property unless you had a gun," he recalls. "It was a bunch of things you never thought about with a landfill—things you just had to deal with, because you had no choice."
As a child, Linette Tyson, who is Ernest's cousin, often walked around the landfill on Sunday evenings with her family.
"You would see everything that had been dumped—panty hose and yarn from the textile factory, carcasses of chickens, cows and dogs."
"The stench in that hole was so bad you had to wear a mask," adds Raymond. "They'd bring in stuff that would be loose on the back of trucks. It was coming from the chemical plants, like Allied Chemical in Moncure [the plant specialized in fibers], and the smell would take your breath away.
"All that stuff seeped into the ground, and you would see the water running off the landfill and into the creek," he said. "When we was kids we'd drink out of the fresh springs. You'd be a fool to do that now."
Now if you lived near the old dump, you might be a fool to even drink what comes out of your kitchen faucet.
Five years after the landfill closed, monitoring wells indicated that the dump was leaking liquid laced with hazardous chemicals into groundwater at levels exceeding state and federal standards. The contaminated liquid was draining toward the East Alston neighborhood and its private drinking water wells, according to a 1999 report by engineer T. Patrick Shillington with Engineering and Environmental Science Company, which was hired by the county to study the contamination.
The contaminants included the carcinogen vinyl chloride, which was detected at levels 35 times higher than the state's acceptable level. Long-term vinyl chloride exposure can lead to "rare cancer of the liver," according to the EPA.
However, Chatham County did not aggressively pursue cleaning up the contamination and did little to try to contain it. Only when state regulators intervened did the county begin to address the problem.
In July 1998, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) sent then-Chatham County Solid Waste Manager Robert Holden a letter stating the county was required to hire an engineer and geologist to develop a "plan of action" in monitoring the unlined dump site.
Hydrologist Mark Poindexter, DENR's branch manager for the Division of Waste Management, informed Holden that the dump's nearest monitoring well, which was less than 75 feet from the drinking well belonging to Raymond Alston, "indicates levels of chemical constituents exceeding water quality standards."
Part of the problem stemmed from the county's failure to put a buffer between the dump and nearby homes. Shillington informed the county that a solid waste landfill should have a 500-foot buffer between it and residential property lines. But in the western corner of the landfill, the county had dumped within 75 to 150 feet of John Alston's and Raymond Alston's homes.
"They shouldn't have dumped right to the edge of the property," Ernest says. "If they had created their own buffers within the landfill, and not come right up to the edge of the landfill, those wells wouldn't have been so contaminated."
The county became aware of contaminants in drinking water wells in 1998, but it took six years for officials to provide the Tyson and Alston families with alternate sources of drinking water.
In the late '90s, former public works director Ronald D. Singleton notified Raymond by letter that his drinking water exceeded federal groundwater standards for the chemical compound 1,2-Dichloroethane (used to produce vinyl chloride) by almost 12 times. The EPA warns that people who drink water contaminated with 1,2-Dichloroethane over a long time can develop cancer. The county then provided Raymond with bottled water and a charcoal water filtration system for his well.
The county had additional data from monitoring wells showing that dangerous levels of contaminants were leaching into residential water supplies. Solid Waste Manager Holden sent letters to Linette Tyson, Raymond and John advising them to relocate their wells. But Tyson informed county attorney Robert L. Gunn that the county should dig her family a new well if contaminants from the landfill endangered the drinking water.
Yet it wasn't until 2004 that the county finally dug new wells for the Tysons, Raymond and John—the households with the three closest drinking wells to the landfill.
In spite of newly dug wells, the residents' drinking water woes were not over. Within a week of digging the new wells, the drinking water tested high in toluene and carbon disulfide. Toluene is a clear liquid that smells like paint thinner. If inhaled, exposure can lead to tiredness, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea and hearing and color vision loss. Carbon disulfide has an ether-like scent, and exposure to it can be life-threatening since it immediately affects the nervous system.
Elizabeth R. Stout, chief environmental consultant with the Engineering and Environmental Science Company, reported to Holden shortly after testing the new wells that the contaminants did not come from the landfill but from the solvent and plastic pipe for the well pump system. Wherever the contamination came from, the water was not fit to drink.
Chatham County Environmental Health Director Holly Coleman emailed Holden in July 2004, stating, "If the toluene levels in the John Alston and Mary Tyson wells are greater than allowable in the resamples, these wells will be required to be abandoned."
Meanwhile, Raymond's new well continued to test high in arsenic. James Kivett with the Chatham County Health Department under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported to the county that, "arsenic and lead were found in the water of [Raymond Alston]. Drinking the water on a daily basis for several years is associated with a 1 in 750 cancer risk."
The EPA has identified arsenic as a human carcinogen. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer of the skin, bladder, lung, liver, kidney, prostate, breast, colon and stomach. It can also damage the nervous system.
That summer, water from Tyson's well also tested above state groundwater standards for arsenic, according to samples taken by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
From April 2004 until midsummer 2005, the county continued to sample the new wells with varying results. In August 2005, Jimmie W. Greer with the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Aquifer Protection Section, sent Chatham County Environmental Health Director Holly Coleman an email advising the county to sample the wells annually and forward the results to property owners. Although many residents had lived in the neighborhood for years before the county built the landfill, Greer, in essence, blamed them for living there, writing, "When home/well owners buy or elect to live next to a land fill, they have to assume some kind of responsibility for their actions."
That October, due to contaminants still present in two of the new wells, the county finally agreed to install purification units for those wells. Each purification unit requires annual servicing. The systems call for an additive, Diamond Crystal Solar Salt, to soften the water and decrease its mineral content, which can damage household plumbing. The salts are added to the wells every three to five days, depending on the family's water usage. Each 40-pound bag costs $5.20, and the homeowners, not the county, pay for it.
"The purification systems were installed on these two wells by the county to remove naturally occurring minerals in the groundwater. Because the minerals were not related to groundwater contaminants and due to the fact that the wells are (upstream) from the landfill, the county did not assume responsibility for the operation or maintenance of the purification systems," said Dan LaMontagne, director of the county's Solid Waste Management Department.
The county's groundwater monitoring is performed twice a year, and testing of monitoring wells at the landfill and drinking water wells is scheduled for next month, LaMontagne told the Indy.
For Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost, testing wells and providing Solar Salt is not enough. "By testing the wells, we are only look[ing] at the symptoms and not addressing the real problem," she says.
Earlier this year at a Chatham County Solid Waste Advisory Council meeting, Tyson elaborated on her family's decade-long battle for clean drinking water. "The county has not tested our water since the systems were installed three years ago," she said. "My family also has to deal with the financial burden of filtering our water and the emotional stress of not knowing if the water is safe and when and if the county will take the remainder of our land for a buffer. We cannot afford to move. We will have to endure these hardships for the rest of our lives."
Bit by bit, the county has eaten into private land in order to put more space between the dump and the drinking water wells. Poindexter, the DENR hydrologist, informed the county in 1998 that it needed to increase buffer acreage to help protect the public health and give the county room to further investigate the groundwater contamination.
However, many of the Alstons were reluctant to surrender their property for the buffer acreage, so the county filed eminent domain proceedings with the Superior Court in Chatham County; however, by 2002, those individual family members and property owners acquiesced to the county and sold their land.
The county purchased about half of John's 1.1-acre lot for the buffer, for $6,280. He says his parcel was appraised at $45,000. "My father and uncle fought that landfill, and it still went through; the county just took all of our land for buffers after they'd contaminated the soil," John says. "This won't stop with what they've taken—who knows how much more land they'll need?"
The county took 1.67 acres of Raymond Alston's land for buffer and, in return, relocated his trailer to a new parcel several hundred feet to the north. It took five years.