Jeff Crowley, EPA remedial project manager for the Cristex Drum Superfund site in Oxford, said the building will be razed as part of the remediation. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
Jeff Crowley has spent 21 years at the EPA traipsing through some of the most contaminated hazardous waste sites in the U.S. So when Crowley politely advised a crowd of people how to behave at the old Cristex Drum property, which is rife with solvents, asbestos and lead, no one argued.
“If I don’t go there, you don’t go there,” Crowley said. “Watch where you step. And don’t pick anything up.”
Cristex Drum in Oxford, in Granville County, is one of 39 Superfund sites in North Carolina. The former fabric mill began operating in 1968, four years before there was an EPA, and knit, dyed and finished Tricot, a nylon acetate fabric often used in sportswear, underwear and gloves.
Before Cristex closed in 1986, though, it stored leaking drums of toxic chemicals and metals, including TCE and chromium, outside. The company even buried a pipeline that carried contaminated wastewater into a lagoon and into the Oxford sewer system. The lagoon – a lifeless, green, watery ooze – still percolates behind a copse of pine trees.
Since then, Revlon and CVS used the building for storage, and Jomar Ventures amassed tires there — upward of 20,000 — before the company declared bankruptcy in 2008. Granville County foreclosed on the property, public records show, and it has been saddled with the site ever since.
Redevelopment is years away, Granville County Commissioner Rob Williford said, as he passed a mound of tires. “But it will be great to get it done.”
The overdue cleanup, including the imminent razing of the 150,000-square-foot eyesore on West Industry Drive, attracted a congregation of EPA Region 4 higher ups, DEQ engineers and elected county and federal officials this week to tout the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Law, which earmarked $10 million to the EPA to clean up the Cristex Drum property. It is one of 122 Superfund sites, where remediation will either begin or continue, funded by $1 billion, as laid out in the law.
The makeshift roads, rutted by bulldozers, led to the concrete pad where the drums leaked poison into the earth. The musty odor of mold escaped from the building’s open windows and doors.
As part of the cleanup, the EPA will tear down the asbestos- and lead-contaminated building, which has been left open and become a de facto shelter for unhoused people.
Roughly 336,000 cubic feet of soil will be excavated, creating a hole two stories deep, that will then be backfilled with clean dirt. To treat the groundwater, contractors will try a new technology: electrokinetic-in-situ chemical oxidation. That method injects chemicals into groundwater wells to destroy the toxic compounds, and then applies an electric current to slosh the remedy – “like a washing machine,” Crowley said – throughout the contaminated area.
The Cristex Drum property lies a block away from yet another Superfund site, whose cleanup is farther along: JFD Electronics. There, the groundwater is also contaminated with solvents, and that plume is now mingling with Cristex Drum’s.
“We hope that dealing with the Cristex Drum plume will help the other one get cleaned up,” Crowley said.
Oak Ridge Apartments, a low-income community that is 48% non-white, lies about a quarter mile away. However, those residents are on public water and air testing has shown no harmful vapors have entered the homes, Crowley said.
But the fact that an underserved neighborhood is next to two Superfund sites, a Brownfields property that is also contaminated with hazardous chemicals, and several air pollution sources, underscores the environmental justice concerns for these communities.
“Many Superfund sites are located near low-income communities and they affect communities of color that are traditionally more burdened by environmental stressors,” said U.S. Rep. Valerie Foushee, a Democrat representing the Fourth Congressional District, including Oxford. “The EPA Superfund projects not only help protect the health and safety of our communities, but they are also a critical step forward in environmental justice. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy environment.”
GMH Electronics, a cluster of contaminants northeast of Roxboro
At the corner of Halifax and Virgilina roads, less than a mile northeast of Roxboro, is Bar 49, a watering hole popular among bikers. It was once a filling station, whose underground storage tanks leaked gasoline into the ground.
Catty-cornered from Bar 49 is an old mechanics shop that doubled as a gas station/convenience store. Behind it is a faceless brick building with a sagging portico that once housed GMH Electronics, a Durham-based company that operated from 1972 to 2004.
Here, workers built circuit boards and cleaned them with toxic solvents that either spilled, leaked, or were dumped on the ground.
This contaminated intersection, anchored by the GMH site, has been on the Superfund list since 2009, after public health officials found more than 50 private drinking water wells were contaminated with a dual plume: toxic chemicals from the gasoline, and solvents from GMH. The densest contaminants have hit bedrock.
In front yards, at the GMH site, along the rights-of-way, the ground is like a pincushion punctured with monitoring wells, measuring levels of 15 types of chemicals, including cancer-causing benzene and TCE in the groundwater. The soil is also contaminated.
“Everywhere you look is a monitoring well,” Crowley, the site’s remedial project manager, said.
The contaminant plume continues to meander east, below homes and a small farm. Those homes now have alternate water supplies and no longer are connected to private drinking water wells; nor is the groundwater suitable for irrigation. More than 83% of people living in the census block group are non-white, and three-quarters are low-income, census data show.
The cleanup at GMH stalled for several years because of funding. Now with $810,000 in federal money, the next stage of remediation can continue. For example, solvents, in particular, are stubborn. In the spring, the EPA will remove the contaminated groundwater 10,000 gallons at a time, place it in a special tank, then inoculate it with a special type of bacteria that breaks down and removes the compounds. That treated groundwater will then be reinjected in hopes the microbes spread throughout the plume and render it harmless.
Soil vapor extraction systems have been operating since 2021. They essentially inhale the contamination and capture it in carbon membranes, which are later cleaned and recycled, or disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill.
One extraction system is behind locked a fence at GMH. The other is also locked, behind Bar 49, where patrons, otherwise unaware, relax at outdoor picnic tables, hoisting cold beers on an unseasonably hot October afternoon.
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