A Superfund cleanup in Jacksonville failed. Without federal funding for a fix, contamination is spreading.
Beset by budget cuts, bankruptcies, legal disputes and broken equipment, the cleanup of the ABC Cleaners property has been further delayed.
ABC Cleaners, a jumble of buildings with a warped vinyl facade and an American flag above the front door, sat across the boulevard from the Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, for nearly 50 years. In its heyday, in the 1960s and ’70s, ABC did a bustling business. Its main clientele were Marines whose uniforms — black, gold-buttoned coats, azure trousers with a scarlet on the outer seam — needed cleaning and pressing.
To remove the dirt and sweat, ABC workers bathed the dress blues in solvents that contained a toxic chemical, PCE. Also known as PERC, it is classified as a likely carcinogen by the EPA.
Over time, ABC discharged thousands of gallons of hazardous solvents through its septic system. The chemicals leaked from the septic tank, saturated the soil and seeped into the groundwater, contaminating two wells that supplied drinking water to Tarawa Terrace, an on-base housing community of 6,200 residents.
The military connected Tarawa Terrace to a different water supply in 1985. But it would be 1989 — another four years — and multiple investigations before the EPA placed ABC Cleaners on the Superfund list.
Superfund is reserved for some of the most heavily polluted areas in the United States, where the people or companies responsible for the contamination, have disappeared, gone bankrupt or otherwise can’t pay for a cleanup. It is left to the EPA to do the work and cover the costs.
Now after 30 years, and the expenditure of roughly $1 million in taxpayer money, the cleanup at ABC Cleaners should be nearly finished. Instead, because of contractual disputes, recalcitrant business owners, broken equipment and even hurricane damage, the cleanup at ABC Cleaners — one of the most complicated dry cleaning projects in North Carolina — has failed.
Many people in Jacksonville either don’t know about the continued environmental threats posed by the contamination, or they think the cleanup is complete. Even State Rep. Phil Shepard, a Jacksonville Republican who used to work at Camp Lejeune, was unaware that the cleanup had stalled.
“I haven’t heard a thing about it,” Shepard told Policy Watch. “I understood everything was cleaned up the best they could.”
The site is far from clean. The EPA knew their treatment methods were failing as early as 2003. Shortly after the agency selected a new remediation method in 2018, the Superfund money had run out for ABC Cleaners.
Federal budget cuts to the program have created a backlog of 34 unfunded construction projects — ABC Cleaners among them — the largest in 15 years, according to recent EPA figures.
The future of the ABC Cleaners site became more uncertain earlier this month, when President Trump proposed cutting the money-starved Superfund program by another $106 million — to $1 billion, a scant amount to remediate the 1,300-plus sites across the US.
The site poses many long-term threats. Environmental officials are concerned that gases from the contaminated soil could be seeping into adjacent buildings, potentially exposing workers to harmful vapors. The soil also continues to force-feed pollution into the groundwater. From there, state and federal records show, the contaminant plume could penetrate more deeply into the aquifer and expand toward Northeast Creek, which feeds the New River.
The top brass at Camp Lejeune was facing a crisis. In the early 1980s, the military had sampled 40 of the community water supply wells on base and found 10 were contaminated. Tens of thousands of troops and their families had been exposed to industrial solvents, benzene, and other cancer-causing chemicals in the drinking water for more than 25 years.
For eight of those wells, the pollution had originated in the groundwater at Camp Lejeune. But there were two outliers, wells serving Tarawa Terrace, whose contamination state investigators traced to ABC Cleaners.
Milton Melts bought the ABC Cleaners business and the one-acre property in the mid-1960s, 15 years before the Superfund program was established. In those pre-regulatory times, it was common for businesses to legally dispose of their contaminated material in the cheapest way possible.
While a neighboring dry cleaner paid to discharge its hazardous solvents into Jacksonville’s wastewater treatment system, the Melts flushed theirs through a floor drain into a septic tank, which discharged into a drainage field on the property, according to state records.
The dry cleaner down the street disposed of its “still bottoms” — powder residue from the solvent tanks — into a dumpster and then paid to have it hauled to the county landfill. But the Melts used the toxic material, also known as muck, to fill potholes in the ABC Cleaners driveway — about a ton over 30 years, state and federal records show.
After the Nixon administration created the EPA by executive order in 1970, waste disposal became more tightly regulated. But it was too late for ABC Cleaners. Workers were at risk of inhaling the toxic vapors that off-gassed from the soil and through the building’s foundation. Testing showed PERC concentrations in the soil beneath the business as high as 2,100 parts per million (ppm).
Groundwater at ABC Cleaners (which is subject to stricter standards than soil) reached 12,000 part per billion (ppb), thousands of times higher than state regulations allowed. The polluted groundwater didn’t have to travel far to reach Tarawa Terrace — just 500 feet. Testing by the NC Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources (now DEQ), showed levels of PERC in Tarawa Terrace wells at 1,580 ppb, 300 times the EPA’s maximum contaminant level of 5 ppb. In February 1985, the Department of Defense connected the housing community to an emergency alternative water supply.
Once regulators swooped in at the cleaners to conduct sampling, the Melts brothers should have known their disposal practices were not just illegal but harmful. Nonetheless, even though the Melts brothers knew regulators had identified ABC Cleaners as the contaminant source, they continued to discharge hazardous solvents into their septic tank for at least a year, according to state records.
“I can find no reason why my family and I should have to go through so much heartache and pain when we have done nothing wrong,” Victor Melts wrote to the state’s Office of Legal Affairs in October 1987, after receiving a Notice of Violation 15 months before. “…In all honesty and sincerity, I cannot accept suggested reasons for being accused of contaminating the wells at Camp Lejeune or intentionally breaking the environmental laws of North Carolina. Not now. Not ever.”
(Both Milton and Victor are now deceased.)
Milton Melts’s daughter, Vicky Stephens, even wrote to her congressman Rep. Tim Valentine, asking him to intervene. “Naturally over thirty odd years there had to be accidents and some spills,” Stephens wrote in 1988. “Dad and Uncle Vic always stressed to their employees to immediately soak it up with the clothes.”
Occasional spills, however, could not explain the volume of contamination detected in the groundwater and soil. Finally, in 1989, considering the brothers’ inability to pay for a full site remediation, the EPA placed ABC Cleaners on the Superfund list. The property was just one of the 869 that year which qualified based on their hazardous risk.
When ABC Cleaners went on the Superfund list, the program received most of its money not from individual taxpayers, but from so-called “polluter taxes” on crude oil and chemical companies. Those levies, plus fines and penalties, and some modest Congressional appropriations, buoyed the Superfund budget to $2.2 billion, or $4.5 billion in 2020 dollars.
The ABC Cleaners site would get a piece of that money. And if the remediation went as planned, the property would be cleaned up and removed from the National Priorities List by September 2021.
Thirty feet below busy Lejeune Boulevard, a shallow or “surficial” aquifer ushers groundwater southeast toward the Northeast Creek, the New River and onto the Atlantic Ocean. A deeper aquifer, the Castle Hayne, was formed during the Eocene epoch which lasted from around 56 to 34 million years ago when the sea stretched inland, from the present-day coast nearly to Raleigh. Jacksonville still sits close to the water, about 30 feet above it.
The two aquifers — the surficial and the Castle Hayne — are known as “unconfined” aquifers because they don’t keep to themselves. Instead, they communicate with each other, so to speak, and that hydrogeological crosstalk allows groundwater contamination to move between them.
Over time, PERC concentrations in some areas of the plume have decreased, but the levels remain far above the remedial goals. As concerning is the fact that that the size of the contaminant plume has grown, to 1,500 feet long, 400 feet wide and as much as 250 feet deep in some places, according to EPA documents.
The New River is only 40 miles long, but is a key component of the coastal estuary system and its fisheries. “When you look at the impact to and from that water body, everything winds up in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Larry Baldwin, advocacy director for the White Oak-New Riverkeeper Alliance. “The New River and the White Oak are in a very sensitive area of the state. They’re both beautiful water systems.”
In 1993, four years after the EPA assigned ABC Cleaners to the Superfund program, the agency, with the state’s blessing, chose a cleanup method to remove the PERC from the groundwater: Pump and treat with air stripping. The groundwater would be sucked out of the aquifer, and the PERC eliminated using a forced air system. The treated water would be discharged to Northeast Creek; the vapors would also be treated before being released.
The soil, which was the origin of the contamination, would be cleaned up using a similar method: vapor extraction, whose design principles are similar to a vacuum cleaner sucking dirt and funneling it into a catchment bag.
The EPA considered both systems the best technology available at the time, considering the constraints posed by the site: The vast amount of pollution and the property’s location on a commercial strip. To excavate all of the contaminated soil would require razing several buildings on the block, and possibly even digging under Lejeune Boulevard. The EPA determined that this method was not economically or logistically feasible.
Nonetheless, there was a sense of urgency, at least by EPA timeline standards, to get the contamination out of the water and out of the ground.
In 1994, state regulators had commented on the treatment proposal: “The groundwater flow pattern is such that the contaminant plume will eventually end up in Northeast Creek and that without adequate remediation of the site, it could be affected.”
Yet harnessing the contamination would prove difficult. Even though ABC Cleaners had tied into the public water system, it continued to be sloppy with its solvents.
In 1995, DEQ cited Victor Melts with a Notice of Violation for allowing PERC-contaminated water to spill into the soil. (The Melts brothers did eventually settle with DEQ, and paid $270,000 toward the cleanup.)
Meanwhile, EPA contractors built and operated the groundwater and soil treatment systems. Finally, a decade after ABC Cleaners was placed on the Superfund list, the systems began removing the contamination.
However, circumstances seemed to conspire against their success. One subcontractor declared bankruptcy and its field staff resigned en masse. A lawsuit between the main contractor and a different subcontractor took the groundwater pump-and-treat system offline for nearly two years. Because of the dispute, there was a nine-year data gap for groundwater monitoring.
The air stripper leaked. A fuse blew. Batteries died. Other parts malfunctioned, shutting down the groundwater system for several weeks.
Even without these mishaps, ABC Cleaners would have been difficult to remediate. It is considered an outlier when compared to other dry-cleaner sites, DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard told Policy Watch. “It had an unusually large release of contaminants to a complex aquifer that posed a risk to a large population, and the release affected a public drinking water supply. While other dry-cleaners may have some of these issues, it is unusual for a dry-cleaner to have all of these issues.”
Since there was still hazardous material left on and near the site, ABC Cleaners was subject to a five-year review. Once funds are released for a site, the EPA requires these reviews until the contamination is remediated to its cleanup goal. (The goal depends on how the property might be redeveloped; residential standards are stricter than industrial ones.)
In 2003, the state environmental agency prepared the first review, which revealed the system was not working as expected. The groundwater plume was lengthening and deepening into the Castle Hayne aquifer. As for the soil, although 700 pounds of contamination had been sucked out of the ground, PERC contamination persisted below the area of the former septic tank. And the state had strengthened its groundwater standards for PERC, requiring stricter cleanup goals.
The state made similar observations in the second five-year review, in 2008, and floated the idea that it should reevaluate the soil cleanup. While contaminants were decreasing in the groundwater near the surface, they persisted deeper and farther from the source. The state recommended reanalyzing the extent of the contamination and “re-evaluate the optimal approach to remediating the site.”
The Meltses had not yet placed “institutional controls” — deed restrictions — on the property notifying prospective buyers of the contaminants.. “Implementation of the controls has been delayed due to the uncooperativeness of the property owner,” the review reads.
The Superfund program was undergoing its own seismic shift. In 1995, Congress allowed the corporate taxes, which had paid for the trust fund, to expire. A Governmental Accountability Office report found that as a result, annual funding declined from $2.9 billion in Fiscal Year 1995 to just $1.4 billion decade later, a decrease of 51%. Congress was now in charge of appropriating money for the program, using not just corporate, but individual taxpayer money as well.
“When funding is not sufficient, construction at [Superfund] sites cannot begin; cleanups are performed in less than an optimal manner; and/or activities are stretched over longer periods of time,” the EPA’s Inspector General reported in 2004. “As a result, total project costs may increase and actions needed to fully address the human health and environment risk posed by the contaminants are delayed.”
This is what happened at ABC Cleaners.
Hurricane Irene was threshing coastal Carolina when 23 minutes before sunrise on Aug 27, 2011, a 94 mph wind gust buffeted Jacksonville. It rained well into the afternoon, dumping more than nine inches on the city.
On Lejeune Boulevard, the soil vapor extraction system could take no more. It broke down and was never restarted.
The groundwater treatment system had been shut down as scheduled earlier that year, to allow for “monitored natural attenuation.” In other words, watching trends in contamination levels without any other intervention.
Shortly afterward, the city condemned one of the ABC Cleaners buildings (the business, but not the property had since been sold to another cleaners), which was severely damaged. The middle building was demolished in 2014, and the remaining structure in 2017.
A slab of the demolished building was left to prevent people from being exposed to the underlying contaminated soil. The groundwater is off-limits for drinking.
But by now, the EPA was resigned to the fact that its remedies, which had operated for more than 10 years, were inadequate. When the remedies were initially designed, the extent of the contamination was greater than the agency and its contractors believed. And one of the remedies — pumping and treating the groundwater — once considered effective technology in the 1990s, was being replaced by other superior methods.
So the agency started over.
Since then, EPA contractors have found that PERC concentrations in the surficial aquifer “are higher than the highest concentrations detected” in 1994. High levels of PERC have been detected 800 feet east of the site, past the Dollar Tree and Bojangles’. Contamination has been detected immediately west, under a short strip mall and nextdoor to the east, under Major’s Furniture and Appliance. It’s possible that the PERC could be off-gassing into those buildings, jeopardizing worker health.
“Properties neighboring the Site that have occupied commercial buildings that are located directly above the ‘smear zone’ are suspected to have vapor intrusion concerns,” EPA documents read.
Previous air monitoring indicated PERC levels posed “no imminent threats” to public health. However, the EPA acknowledges, because of the restrictions imposed by the owner of the furniture store, “there is some uncertainty in the confidence of the results.”
The store owner would allow samples to be collected only near the ceiling, not the “breathing zone,” according to EPA documents, “and may not accurately reflect concentrations to which building occupants might be exposed.”
Neither the EPA, Jacksonville city officials or two Onslow County Commissioners responded to emails from Policy Watch requesting an interview. But in 2017 the Jacksonville city manager and city attorney seemed displeased with the progress.
“The extensive cleanup period is believed to be the result of the ‘little to no teeth,’ of the Superfund process” the officials said, according to the EPA’s interview transcripts. “The aesthetics of the buildings have served as one of the most significant factors” of Lejeune Boulevard’s decline, “which has had a negative impact on the City of Jacksonville.”
Beth Hartzell of DEQ’s Superfund section told EPA interviewers, in 2017, that the “site is in a state of limbo.”
Finally, in 2018 — nearly three decades after the site was placed in the Superfund program — the EPA proposed an interim action to address the soil contamination. This included “time-critical” excavation of the septic tank area and two feet of soil from where the middle building lay, followed by the construction of a fence around the property.
These actions were scheduled for the spring of 2019. On Sept. 30, 2019, when Policy Watch visited the property, no excavation had occurred. Since then, a fence has been erected; in mid-February two dumpsters were inside the fence. EPA Remedial Project Manager Anna Cornelious did not respond to an email asking whether the septic tank area had been excavated.
A vapor intrusion mitigation system would be installed in adjoining buildings. And a new soil treatment, similar to the previous vapor extraction system, adds heat, which would force the contaminants to leave the soil and evaporate. The contaminated vapor would be collected and treated.
The estimated cost of the new cleanup, which includes only soil, not groundwater, is $3.34 million. Once the system is built — about a two-month project — the EPA projects it will take two years to reach clean up goals for the soil.
But given the lack of funding for the project, the complexity of the cleanup, and the history of delays, it could be mid-decade before there is any measurable progress. By then, the groundwater and the soil will have been poisoned for 60 years.
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