RICHMOND COUNTY – Richmond County is an environmentally cleaner place thanks to regulations enforced in the past. Concern has been expressed, however, that North Carolina may be falling behind in such protections.
Praised or cursed, the impact of regulations cannot be disputed.
Local governments, businesses and industries are all at the mercy of regulations from federal, state and the local Health Department to keep us healthy. At least, that is the intention, if enforced.
Unfortunately, not every county in North Carolina is as fortunate as Richmond County was in the past. Representative Ken Goodman (D-66) in his September report said, “Years of water quality cuts have left waterways unprotected and water permit reviews backlogged.
“Since 2013, the Department of Environmental Quality has seen 70 positions eliminated from Water Quality and Water Resources, a 41% reduction in water quality and water resources staff,” he said.
Many residents may not be aware of any such impacts on their lives. An example of what can happen when regulations are brought to bear on environmental hazards occurred in Richmond County in the last century.
It was the cleanup of the Charles Macon Lagoon and Drum Storage site one mile east of the Pee Dee River and 1.6 miles southwest of Cordova.
From 1979 to 1981 on a 41-acre site, a waste oil recycling and antifreeze manufacturing facility was in operation.
According to a 1980 inspection by the State of North Carolina, there were 11 lagoons on the site containing waste oil and sludges and 2,175 drums containing various chemicals. Operations ceased in 1981.
Eight of the lagoons were unlined and overflowing. In 1982, the state ordered the owner’s estate to clean up the site. The estate removed 300 drums and installed two on-site monitoring wells.
In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency removed the remaining drums and excavated the filled-in 10 lagoons. A remaining lagoon contained solidified waste sludge, crushed drums and contaminated oil. It was covered by three feet of clay.
In 1985, the EPA detected chemicals in monitoring wells downhill from the site. Some1,000 people were drinking water from private wells uphill within three miles of the site
There were four residences within 100 yards of the site. The Pee Dee River was one mile away; and two natural ponds, two streams and a swamp were between the river and the site.
Threats from contaminants, the EPA said, included, “Groundwater downstream from the site is contaminated with trichloroethylene (which can cause cancer) and heavy metals including barium and chromium. Sediments from the ponds are contaminated with toluene. Sludge is contaminated with heavy metals and creosote. People who accidentally touch or ingest contaminated groundwater, sediments, sludge or soil may be at risk.”
In 1987, the EPA filed an action against several parties potentially responsible for contamination at the site. The EPA took control of the legal processes needed, cleanup costs and recovering damages from those parties responsible.
Without regulation, none of this would have been done and contamination would have spread.
The EPA completed its last five-year review in April 2015, concerning treatment at the site.
“Ground water contamination remains but is confined to the site and is being actively treated,” the report said. “Local residents living and working near the site are not currently threatened by site contamination.”
The problem with that hazardous waste site in the Cordova area involved a major cleanup effort requiring involvement of the EPA.
There are other ongoing local efforts elsewhere to keep the county environmentally clean. Richmond County closed its household waste dump and now pays another county to process and properly bury it. There are now waste collection sites around the county. The county conducts periodic household hazardous waste collection; such collections are also held for farm operations.
Rockingham has been installing sewage collection lines in East Rockingham. Septic tank systems have replaced “outhouses” throughout the county.
Whenever old service stations are removed or renovated, old in-ground gas tanks are lifted out of the ground and then contaminated soil around them is removed.
And major construction projects are required to produce Environmental Impact Statements.
All these efforts are mostly out of sight, out of mind except to the officials involved.
In the past, fewer people and industries existed in Richmond County. An outhouse or household dump at the back of the property usually impacted no one except an individual property owner. Industries were usually small and rarely used hazardous material in production.
All that has changed as population has grown and industry has expanded. Awareness of the health of the environment for the health of the people is now a foremost consideration by federal, state and local officials.
It is highly unlikely a situation such as the one that existed near Cordova would go unnoticed or ignored today in Richmond County. Regulations are available to remedy such situations.
However, the State of North Carolina today may not be doing all it could. Goodman said the state needs a comprehensive approach to water quality issues. “Unregulated contaminants are a growing problem in all of N.C.,” he said.