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Effort to save a historic water tower put lead in this North Carolina town’s soil

Credit: iStock

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
June 22, 2024

BYNUM, N.C.—Pitted with rust, an empty water tower looms over this old mill village. In its short shadow rests an organic community garden, where overripe tomatoes dangle from dying vines and pepper plants droop, yellowed and parched.

It’s peak growing season, but the garden gates are locked.

This is the most visible sign of the unintended consequences of an attempt to save the water tower and designate it as a historic landmark. Parts of Bynum, including the community garden, are now contaminated with hexavalent chromium and lead.

Last month, a company contracted by Chatham County began using power tools to clean the tower in preparation for repainting it. Even though the tower’s age meant its old paint likely contained lead, and test results the county received in December detected both lead and hexavalent chromium, the county’s contract with Boles Restoration did not call for shrouding the tower to capture the flakes. Nor did it mandate dampening the structure to keep the dust down. Instead, the contract merely called for tarps at the bottom of the tower, which is what Boles workers did, according to residents who witnessed the work.

When a breeze blew from the north and northeast that afternoon, it sent tiny shards of contaminated particles into the community garden and the neighborhood.

“I saw a cloud of dust,” said Jenia McBrian, who lives just 50 feet from the water tower and was downwind that day. “There was no advance notice this was happening.”

Lead is a neurotoxic substance. Chronic exposure can permanently damage the brain and neurological system in children, who are especially vulnerable because they spend time outdoors and often put their hands in their mouths. Adults with high levels of lead in their blood can suffer from brain, kidney, heart and reproductive disorders.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established screening levels for soil and dust, thresholds that, if met or exceeded, merit further investigation. However, the EPA emphasizes there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Soil is a frequently overlooked driver of such exposure—and climate change is expected to make the situation worse as floods spread contaminants.

When she saw the dust, McBrian said she immediately called Chatham County officials, who shut down the operation within a half hour. Shortly afterward, they tested areas of the garden for lead and hexavalent chromium.

Boles representatives did not respond to several phone messages left on the company’s voicemail. County spokesperson Kara Lusk told Inside Climate News that Boles canceled its contract June 11, three days before it was scheduled to expire.

On May 30, 10 days after the incident, Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne sent a partial summary of test results to a Bynum resident, who then posted the announcement to the neighborhood’s listserv. LaMontagne wrote that a mixture of samples collected from the raised beds and pots at the community garden contained levels of hexavalent chromium, also known as Chromium VI, at 35 parts per million. He instructed residents not to enter the garden or the tower area until “all work is completed at the site as determined by the county.”

What LaMontagne didn’t say is that hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen. Inhaling it can cause kidney and liver damage and increase the risk of lung, nasal and sinus cancer, according to studies of exposed workers.

Ingesting hexavalent chromium in soil can cause gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers. It is also associated with anemia, and long-term exposure can harm the male reproductive system.

While the state has not established acceptable levels of hexavalent chromium in garden soil specifically, the levels found in the Bynum community garden were 116 times the threshold set by the state and federal government as the goal for residential soil cleanup.

The metal, found in coal ash, is a byproduct of electroplating, textile dyes and other industrial processes; it was often added to paint on bridges as a protective coating. One of the ways it can contaminate soil is if it’s present in groundwater or surface water used for irrigation, according to the Duke University Superfund Center. Wild raspberries grow on a chain-link fence that divides the tower and community garden. Credit: Lisa Sorg/Inside Climate News

Lusk said the county is conducting additional testing to determine possible sources of the hexavalent chromium.

As for the lead, LaMontagne wrote in his email that its levels in a mixture of soil samples taken from the community garden fell below residential health goals. He did not provide numbers to support the statement.

The exact figures are important. The EPA’s recommended health screening levels for lead in residential soil vary, depending on whether other sources could be present in the environment, such as paint and lead-lined plumbing in older homes. In those situations, the recommended threshold is 100 parts per million. For areas without additional lead sources, the threshold is 200 parts per million.

Community science enlightens a town left in the dark

All the 40-plus homes in Bynum’s mill village were built in the early to mid-1900s, when lead paint was widely used. The EPA did not ban consumer uses of lead-based paint until 1978.

Lusk, the county spokesperson, told Inside Climate News that one of the community garden samples showed a lead level between 100 and 400 parts per million. When contractors used power tools to clean the tower, lead contamination blew into the neighborhood, including the community garden, a centerpiece of Bynum’s sustainable community. Credit: Lisa Sorg/Inside Climate News

With McBrian’s permission, the county tested her private garden, which faces the tower. The results showed levels of lead at more than one and a half times the threshold for areas with multiple potential sources of the metal.

McBrian, a scientist, conducted her own sampling, including areas near the base of the water tower that she could access through the chain-link fence. She also tested the leaves of her broccoli plants, where dust from the tower had landed, and the bottom of her dog Frankie’s paws after he came inside from the fenced-in backyard.

There are no EPA cleanup standards for lead on these types of surfaces, but the results are still notable.

The dust at the base of the tower was highly contaminated with lead—20,500 micrograms per square foot, according to the results McBrian shared with Inside Climate News.

A microgram, the unit of measurement for lead in dust samples, equals one millionth of a gram. EPA’s current “hazard standards” for lead dust on residential floors, for instance, is 10 micrograms per square foot, a threshold the agency has proposed tightening to anything above zero.

The particles on McBrian’s broccoli leaves also contained very high lead levels—3,260 micrograms per square foot. With the exception of root vegetables, most plants don’t absorb lead into their tissues. However, people can be exposed by eating unwashed fruits and vegetables.

And, if the amount of lead found on Frankie’s paws had been tracked in and detected on McBrian’s floors, the concentrations would have been more than 60 times higher than EPA dust-lead clearance levels—the point at which abatement is considered effective.

Many Bynum residents say that the county has not been transparent about the situation. More than a month after the incident, they still don’t know precisely where the sampling was conducted, what the test results mean in layperson’s terms, or how to protect themselves and their children from exposure.

The county has held no public meetings about the matter. No signs at the garden explain what happened or warn against eating the vegetables. On a recent weekend at a park that’s adjacent to the tower property, a teenager practiced kicking a soccer ball, his dog by his side.

County officials are communicating with residents via email, primarily through one or two people who in turn post the messages to the neighborhood listserv. But some residents don’t subscribe to it.

“The county has not communicated directly to my household,” said Dylan Wager, who learned about the issue through forwarded emails. He and his wife have a newborn baby and regularly walk their dogs near the tower and an adjacent soccer field.

Lusk, the county spokesperson, told Inside Climate News that “as this issue is localized in a small geographic area, we have relied on our direct contacts and appreciate the assistance of those people in getting the word out to the community. The county pledges to keep them informed as we move through this process.”A ‘critical’ part of historic Bynum

The tower, no taller than a small silo, has defined the Bynum skyline for more than 75 years. For more than half that time, it was owned by a cotton mill, which drew water from a pond fed by the Haw River and, as recently as the late 1970s, piped it to communal spigots.

The county originally planned to tear down the tower, but residents asked for a reprieve. A view of the Haw River from the Bynum Bridge. Credit: Lisa Sorg/Inside Climate News

“The county listened to us and said they would keep it if we could find a company that would encapsulate and paint it for the same amount they had to remove it,” said Susie Crate, who helped save the tower.

Crate, a retired environmental anthropologist, said the water tower is an essential part of the Bynum Historic District, an area encompassing the mill houses and other historical buildings. The community is close to placing the area on the National Historic Register. Removing this contributing structure, part of the skyline, would detract from Bynum’s historic value, Crate said.

“It is critical for us to maintain the water tower,” Crate explained. “No one can imagine it not being there.”

Last year, several Bynum residents who had worked with the county on the effort asked a company, Southern Corrosion, for a cost estimate to remediate the tower. They received an estimate of $48,000—the same amount the county had budgeted to remove it.

The company subsequently tested a paint chip from the surface of the tower and found it contained lead and hexavalent chromium, Crate said. The county received these results Dec. 11, said Lusk, the spokesperson.

Crate said Southern Corrosion explained to her and Bynum native Martha Collins that it would abate the lead using a water sander, and the dampened lead dust would trickle down the sides of the tank and collect in a skirt at the bottom. The contaminated material would then be taken off site for proper lead disposal.

But because of state procurement rules, Chatham County could not automatically hire Southern Corrosion. It put the job out for bids. Boles Restoration won with a bid of $42,000, according to county documents.

The scope of work between Boles and the county does not include language about lead abatement. After the tower surface had been cleaned, it was to be coated with a special type of paint to encapsulate any contaminants. The contract stipulates only that the company will follow all federal and state laws and will indemnify the county for any harm that could occur as a result of the work.

“This work on the tank was not considered abatement,” Lusk told Inside Climate News.

Through the listserv, county officials have said “any further work on the Bynum water tank will be done in accordance with appropriate state requirements.”

Wager, the resident with a newborn, said the county should test soil in a 500-foot radius from the tower and garden boundary. “The wind doesn’t care about who owns what property,” Wager said, adding that the contaminants “may have spread in every direction.”

The state Division of Public Health has recommended that all “impacted” soil and plants from the community garden be removed, according to county emails. Until the tower is remediated and the contamination removed, the garden is closed.

“Something went really, really wrong,” said Katie Fanfani, whose family has raised vegetables at the community garden since 2017. She routinely brought her two children, ages 6 years and 4 months, to the garden to show them how to grow food. One of the weekly highlights in Bynum is the Front Porch music series, held at the 90-year-old General Store. Credit: Lisa Sorg/Inside Climate News

For residents, the community garden represents the slower, more sustainable way of living that people here embrace.

“The Bynum garden was special and now it’s truly ruined,” Fanfani said. “It’s a tragedy.”

Fanfani wants the county to pay for a new community garden space. But even then, she said, it won’t feel quintessentially Bynum, like the general store, the weekly Front Porch music series and local folk artist Clyde Jones, who uses a chainsaw to carve “critters” out of wood.

“It had that same spirit,” she said of the garden. “It can never be replaced.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Read the original story. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and X.