A Wake Forest community is in an uproar after learning the state of North Carolina knew a resident's water had been contaminated with toxic chemicals and failed to alert other residents for more than six years.
“It makes me feel horrible,” homeowner Michele Hamilton said of unknowingly giving the toxic water to her kids “They're the most important things to me.”
The EPA called families in the community this past summer, saying their water is contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE, and to not drink, bathe or cook with the water.
“I remember where we were when we got the phone call – we were on vacation this summer with our family,” Hamilton said.
Neighbors Monica Stonefield and Frances Cuda got the same call.
“Of course we were frightened and scared,” Stonefield said.
“I was very nervous,” Cuda said. “I think anybody would be.”
Within days of the calls to homeowners, the EPA set up an emergency command post and placed safe water on their doorsteps regularly. The EPA installed water filters in the homes with contamination levels above the EPA's safety standard. And the EPA called a community meeting to explain what neighbors had been drinking.
Gerald LeBlanc, the head of N.C. State University's Department of Environmental and molecular toxicology, said TCE is a chemical that cleaning industries have used for years to remove grease. It is cheap, highly effective – and very toxic.
“Based upon animal studies, we know that it has the ability to do harm,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said TCE “has been known to cause cancer” specifically leukemia, breast cancer, lung cancer, and there are symptoms associated with TCE exposure that are like Parkinson's disease.
Cuda said she has Parkinson's disease. She also said she has gotten cysts, including “a lot of them in this left breast.”
Doctors have not confirmed it, but Cuda believes the development of many large cysts in her left breast and having Parkinson's disease is due to TCE.
Cuda said a neighbor died from breast cancer. “And you know, she was a lovely person,” Cuda said. “She was in her 50s.”
The problem dates back to 10 years ago, where circuit boards were cleaned with the toxin inside a shed on Stony Hill Road in Wake Forest. The TCE exited the building through a pipe and poured straight onto the ground. About three years later, the chemical showed up in a well at the house next door.
At the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Charlotte Jesneck's division took the case.
“It looked to be that the contamination was confined to that well,” Jesneck said.
So in 2005, DENR moved on.
Through a Freedom of Information Act, NBC-17 obtained 800 pages from DENR's files. Inside those pages, NBC-17 found dozens of red flags, including a two-page summary sent from DENR staff to senior managers in 2008 saying, “There are other wells along Stony Hill Road that should be sampled to check their status.”
Also in 2008 was a DENR letter, where the department admitted “the extent of the contamination has not been defined.”
Larry Kusan is an engineer and resident living near the contamination. In 2008, he learned about the contamination that happened in 2005 and was concerned about the potential for the contamination to spread.
“I wanted to make sure that my family wasn't in trouble,” Kusan said in an interview. “Our home is about a mile away from that location.”
Kusan said he was “shocked” by what he found.
He wrote DENR and the governor's office, saying, “The area is slated for significant expansion.”
He noted, “It is the cost to human health that is of greatest concern.”
He then demanded the situation be addressed, or said, “It will result in harm to some residents, current and future.”
DENR admits those warning sat in their files for years because they were focused on “bigger issues.”
Kusan called that a “missed opportunity.”
While the contamination problem brewed underground the area became a popular residential community with several new housing developments.
One resident, Stonefield, said, “We moved here to make a better life for our family.”
Asked if DENR ever notified them of concerns, Stonefield said, “Never.”
Cuda, too, couldn't remember any official notices about the problem.
Environmental engineer Jim Halley said it is reasonable to assume TCE will spread. TCE sinks because it is heavier than water and when it sinks into the groundwater it spreads through the water table and into nearby wells.
“And that's when we really start seeing problems with groundwater and drinking water contamination,” Halley said.
DENR's Jesneck, asked about TCE sinking and spreading, said, “There were higher risk sites on the radar at that time,” and they hoped it wouldn't spread.
The first time many neighbors learned of the contamination was this past June when DENR sent some neighbors a letter asking if they would like to have their wells sampled.
“That's not good enough!” Frank Cuda said. “You bring someone up in uniform, in a vehicle that you know represents them who says, ‘Excuse me. There is an emergency. I need to test your water.'”
DENR called in the EPA for help
By late August, the EPA had sampled about 100 wells. They found the TCE contamination had spread from the source nearly 500 acres and contaminated the wells of 21 families in the area.
Mark Stonefield's well tested positive for dangerous levels of TCE contamination.
“I'm furious,” homeowner Stonefield said. “I'm very upset about it. That's the biggest problem I've had with this whole situation is the state knew about it in 2005. We bought this land in 2007 and built a house on it in 2008 and our kids have been drinking the water for over 4 years now and no one notified us there was even the possibility that the water could be contaminated.”
Jesneck said, “We have a finite number of resources.”
NBC-17 pointed out that it does not require any money to call residents and alert them about potential contamination in the area.
“If we had all the resources in the world, it would be a fantastic thing to do,” Jesneck said. “But given the resources we are given, we have to work on the highest risk known problems first.”
Jesneck added, “We had sites where people actually had detections in their water supply wells or living on contaminated soils. Those are higher priorities than people living near a contaminated site.”
But in the Wake Forest community, that answer is not good enough.
“I don't care about funding!” said Cuda. “All I care about is that someone starts doing their job in the world!”
Cuda pointed out that he drank the water daily for years.
“That's a lot of poison to put in your body for all those years,” he said.