The Pulse

After investigation, state health, environmental officials say no radiation detected at former missile plant in Burlington

By: - February 16, 2023 7:00 am
Photos from NCDEQ records, plant pamphlets. Collage by Lisa Sorg

[Update: Thursday, Feb. 16, at 11:32 am: Carl Smith, who is quoted in this story, shared a screenshot of an email from the NC Department of Health and Human Services saying that it had completed the investigation and found no radiation hazard. “We could not replicate the readings that you provided in your original allegation.”]

Two state agencies are investigating a report of high levels of radiation at the former Tar Heel Army Missile Plant in Burlington, Policy Watch has confirmed. The vacant facility at 204 N. Graham-Hopedale Road is known locally as Western Electric, a former tenant of the building. The 22-acre site has been abandoned for 30 years.

Last week, the Division of Radiation Protection, which is under the state Department of Health and Human Services, received information from an “urban explorer” who had stood at the entrance at one of the underground tunnels with a dosimeter, an instrument that measures radiation exposure.

The dosimeter showed 2.5 rems per hour, according a screenshot of the measurement inside the tunnel shared with Policy Watch.. Rems is short for Roentgens per hour, the unit of measurement for radioactivity.

It’s important to note that this is only one reading, and it’s possible the instrumentation could have been faulty or uncalibrated. But if the level is verified by additional state testing, it would be 250 times higher than the allowable hourly dose limit for the public, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, the urban explorer’s background levels outside the tunnel measured zero, which would indicate that the public would not be at risk unless they entered the tunnel, or if radiation is found elsewhere.

The Division of Waste Management, which is under the state Department of Environmental Quality, is assisting the investigation. DWM has overseen previous testing of other non-radioactive contaminants at the site.

Both divisions visited the TAMP on Wednesday morning to conduct independent sampling, according to a DEQ spokesperson.

The US Army Military Command, which previously owned the property, is liable for cleaning up contamination below ground. The current private owner is for remediating above-ground contamination, such as asbestos in the buildings.

In 2021, Policy Watch published a two-part series about the environmental history of the plant and the lack of meaningful action to clean up the remaining contamination, primarily solvents.  In that series, Policy Watch also reported that radioactive isotopes – Cesium-137 and Americium-241 — had been used at the plant to test guidance systems for the US government’s Nike Missile program. In the 1970s, a worker poured Cesium-137 down a sink drain.

Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years – the amount of time half of the material will decay.

Americium-241 has a half-life of 430 years.

Although the radiation was supposedly cleaned up, in 1999, radiation 20 times above background levels was detected in 1999 in Building 4. Contractors removed all of the contaminated flooring, but within a year found more radioactivity in the air ducts and in drain systems throughout several other buildings.

In 2000, then-Burlington City Planner Jeff Triezenberg wrote to the state expressing disappointment at the discovery of new radioactive sites. “However, it really does not come as any surprise,” he wrote. “Most citizens have commented that if the radiation was found in an air duct it’s probably all over the place in minuscule amounts.”

Carl Smith, a doctoral candidate in nuclear engineering at NC State University, told Policy Watch he had advised the person who took the tunnel measurements to contact state officials. At the levels recorded by the dosimeter, a lethal dose of radioactivity would likely occur within 10 days if the person stayed in the contaminated area, Smith said.

(Photo: DEQ)

After just 10 minutes, Smith said, a person in the tunnel would receive about a year’s worth of radiation.

When the plant was in use, underground tunnels connected the multiple buildings onsite and served as a bunker in case of a nuclear attack, according to historical documents and a former plant employee, now in his 90s.

The dilapidated tunnels are a conduit for groundwater contaminated with solvents, like TCE and other volatile organic compounds, according to state records. DEQ officials believe that pollution is seeping through breaks in a tunnel that leads from the center of the property to Building 16, state records show.

In turn, the tunnel is sending pollutants into the Building 16’s basement, which in 2020 was “flooded from floor to ceiling,” according to DEQ notes to the U.S. Army Environmental Command.

“… This is a big environmental issue that has not been properly identified much less addressed,” the notes read. “… Something should be done to characterize and properly dispose of the water. Also if the tunnel breach is that bad, plug it up and stop further infiltration.”

Building 16 is on the north side of the property and lies within 100 feet of several homes in a predominantly low-income neighborhood and community of color. Residents previously told Policy Watch their yards flood from runoff coming from the plant.

Unsheltered people also live at the plant, according to state documents; others, including teenagers and the curious, often explore the buildings and the tunnels.

The lack of security has posed an “urgent public health issue” since 2015, state records show, but has yet to be permanently resolved. Even with additional fencing, there are plenty of places to slip inside the facility. In some cases, people simply cut the fence.

The federal government owned the plant until the early 2004. Since then, it has been privately owned by three separate companies. None of them has improved the property, and instead allowed it to lay fallow.

The current owner, David Tsui, tried to enroll the facility in the state’s Brownfields program in order to redevelop it. The state denied his application because he has a federal criminal record for defrauding the Medicare program in connection with his orthotic shoe business.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.