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Cleaning up toxic mess in Wake Forest will cost taxpayers

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WAKE FOREST, N.C. -

What was once an undeveloped area in northern Wake County is now a growing residential community, and a popular place for families looking to settle down.

Five years ago, the Stonefield family bought land to build their dream home.

"We moved here to make a better life for our family," Monica Stonefield said.

They built a home and dug a well. Everything seemed picture perfect.

But the ground below their home is polluted, and the water they drink is contaminated with a toxin called trichloroethelyne, or TCE. In 2002 TCE was dumped from a building on Stony Hill Road. DENR was alerted about the contamination in 2005. Nearly seven years later, in June 2012 the EPA confirmed TCE had spread to the private water wells of 21 families.

About 2 and a half miles north of Stony Hill Road, another neighborhood, Mangum Estates, is also dealing with contamination. Ken Rhame of the EPA confirmed to NBC-17 Friday that one more house just ouside of Mangum Estates had tested positive, but not for dangerous levels. Nine homes in Mangum Estates have dangerous levels.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources knew about the danger. NBC-17 Investigates obtained the Inactive Hazardous Sites Inventory from 2008. The inventory is the state's list of known contamination sites. One, at Stony Hill Road in Wake Forest, is just a few hundred yards from the Stonefields.

Between 2005-2012, Charlotte Jesneck of DENR said the Division of Waste Management was not focused on the Stonefields or the dozens of other new homes and new wells being built inside the Stonewalls development.

"If they had lived here – would they have wanted their wells tested for all those years? I believe so," Stonefield said

But Jesneck said resources are limited.

"We have to spend those very few resources we have towards ones where we know someone is currently drinking contaminated water or currently being exposed,' said Jesneck. "We have to work on those first."

Also, Jesneck said DENR has been focused on identifying responsible parties to pay for the remediating the contamination problem.

"With clean-up ranging in the millions of dollars, and the resources available, we need to reach out to responsible parties to get the clean-up to happen," Jesneck said.

Meanwhile, the highly toxic, cancer-causing chemical spread underground. And that's a problem for neighbors. TCE is so toxic that approximately one teaspoon would contaminate a 440,000 gallon swimming pool beyond EPA safety standards.

"With the higher concentrations we felt like it was urgent enough to get them a clean source of water, not knowing how long they'd been exposed," said Ken Rhame, a regional director for the EPA.

After testing wells the EPA immediately provided residents with bottled water. Wells with contamination above the EPA safety standard were provided water filters.

A permanent solution is underway. The EPA is installing water lines to connect contaminated homes with water from nearby community wells. The pollution is so concentrated in the Wake Forest neighborhood that iron water lines have to be wrapped in a protective layer before going into the ground. So far, nine homes have been connected to the water line. All residents are expected to be connected by the end of the year.

And there is nothing cheap about the process.

Phase 1 and Phase 2 include the first two water lines and cost a total of $250,000. The third line costs $1.5 million. And the manpower to do it – at least $50,000.

Taxpayers are footing the $1.8 million bill, and that's just forWakeForest.

DENR's Jesneck said there are 2,000 sites across the state where the state knows there is contamination. The majority of them have TCE, which means families could be unknowingly drinking contaminated water.

"We do not know the extent of the contamination at all these properties," Jesneck said.

Asked why the state doesn't notify neighbors building homes near contamination sites, Jesneck said, "When you're talking about notifying people or contacting them and you have 2,000 sites and then multiply that by the thousands of properties around them and the fact that properties change hands – that's a tremendous amount of resources to keep on top of who is owning when we don't know when the property transfers."

The bottom line, however, is that as long as people are unaware of the contamination sites, builders will keep building, neighbors will keep drinking – and taxpayers eventually will pay to clean up the mess.

"If you drive through this area, there is still plenty of land still available for people to build homes on," said Stonefield. "And  I would think there needs to be some plan put in place so for people coming into the area, for years to come, will know that this is a concern and something that they need to look into.

"Had we known, we certainly would've paid out of pocket to test our water before building a home here."

TCE is a contaminant that only turns up in a volatile organic compound test, commonly referred to as a VOC test. Currently, counties like Wake County regularly tests new wells for several contaminants but not VOCs. Unless the well is within 500 feet of a known contamination site, counties in North Carolina are not required to test new wells for VOCs nor alert residents to the known contamination.  

In the Stony Hill Road case, the TCE contamination spread approximately 1,500 feet from the contamination source.

Environmental engineers said that is common with TCE because the chemical is more dense than water and sinks into the water table.

NBC-17 found that a law to require counties to check new wells for TCE has been stalled in the legislature for years. The legislature authorized the DHHS' Commission for Public Health to create rules that would require certain counties to test new wells for VOC contamination. So far, the commission has not acted.

But homeowners can take matters into their own hands and have their wells tested. NBC-17 has posted the list of contaminated sites and information about testing your well for VOCs here.  This story includes links to a list of contaminated sites as well as phone numbers for companies that test for VOC.

 

Charlotte Huffman

An award-winning journalist with an investigative edge, Charlotte has driven legislative change with reports on workplace safety concerns and contaminated groundwater. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

Poison in the Water

There are at least 2,000 sites statewide where DENR knows there is TCE contamination that is likely spreading into the water of unsuspecting families. More>>

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