Another neighborhood has toxic water - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken

WNCN Investigates

Another neighborhood has toxic water

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Following an October investigation by WNCN into toxic drinking water in Wake Forest, the state of North Carolina saw the number of people requesting well water tests triple.

As WNCN Investigates has discovered, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources is investigating another neighborhood drinking toxic water. This comes after a resident requested a well test from Wake County.

The results showed dangerous levels of pesticides in his drinking water.

One resident, Janice Whitley, has been drinking from her tap for "50-some years," she said. That was until a rude awakening last December brought her daily routine to a halt. She lives just outside the beltline in a so-called "donut hole." The neighborhood is in an area that has not been annexed by the city and does not receive city services such as water and sewer.

"It feels like I'm washing my hands in germs -- in poison," Whitley said.

In December, Whitley received a letter from Wake County saying a water sample acquired from her well detected the pesticide known as "chlordane." She has been drinking nearly twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency deems to be safe.

The letter warned her not to use her tap for drinking or cooking, and to limit her showers to 10 minutes.

"Nobody wants to have to drink water that has poison in it," she said. "It's very dangerous and I don't want to have to drink that anymore."

Whitley now uses bottled water for not only drinking, but also cooking and brushing her teeth.

She isn't the only one in the neighborhood dealing with poisoned water, however. Her neighbor, Lei Martin, has also been driven to use bottled water for everything.

One by one, the state has collected water samples from approximately 30 wells in the neighborhood, which is primarily low-income and made up of mostly elderly residents. So far tests have revealed the wells of 16 homes have dangerous levels of at least one of several chemicals, including two pesticides -- dieldrin and chlordane.

"I didn't know anything about [them]. I had to look it up on the computer," Whitley said.

The EPA says chlordane and dieldrin are "probable human carcinogens," meaning they "may cause cancer." When Whitley discovered they may cause cancer, she said she connected the dots.

Her husband died four years after a battle with cancer.

"Of course you wonder," she said. "He had a stroke. His lungs burned up with radiation from Hodgkin's [lymphoma], from treatments."

DENR is working to identify a source of the contamination, and officials say there is no telling yet where the pesticide contamination came from. The state, DENR says, is not ruling anything out at this point.

The EPA initially questioned Taylor's Nursery, a large nursery just across the street from Whitley's neighborhood that has been around since the 1950s. The owner of the business declined to speak on camera, but maintains the nursery never used either pesticide.

State environmental officials say it's likely that the contamination came from legal use of the pesticides, which can be traced back decades ago.

"The '50s and '60s were a time for a huge explosion of chemical manufacturing, and very few chemicals had been tested for toxicity," said Hope Taylor with Clean Water for N.C.

Before chlordane and dieldrin were banned in the mid-1980s, they were legally used for decades to control insects on crops, lawns and gardens, and for termite control in homes. At that time, no one knew how long the chemicals would stay in the environment.

"That was also one of the beauties of the product, too," said Wayne Buhler, a professor and pesticide education specialist in the Department of Horticulture Science at North Carolina State University. "Because it was long-lasting and persistent in the environment, it would mean maybe one application would be enough whereas several would be necessary with the type of products we have now."

With the assistance of a state fund, Whitley will receive filters, though that is only a temporary solution that does little to ease her concerns.

"I was depending on this house to help me in my old age," she said.

It would cost Whitley up to $26,000 to connect to city water, and she says that is not an option. She says the cost is prohibitive "because most of the people out here in this area have been here for 40 to 50 years, and they're senior citizens and depend on their retirement and Social Security to live."

"When you take $26,000 out of the bank, you can't replace it."

NBC-17 sat down with the new head of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Secretary John Skvarla, to discuss the problem.

"This is a serious issue to the Governor and to DENR," Skvarla said. "People must have clean water. There's no getting around that. Public health and public safety is foremost and far secondary to that are property values. You don't want people's homes to become worthless. I'd also like to thank you… and the station for bringing this to the fore."

Skvarla, who was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory said he is working to reallocate money in the department in order to create a notification program to warn people living near known contamination sites.

"We have to put this as a priority. I don't know anything else in DENR that is a higher priority than people having clean drinking water," said Skvarla.

In the meantime, Skvarla said, "Well owners must be proactive. There's no way one agency can test all the wells in North Carolina. Get your well tested."

Ground water is the major source of drinking water for more than half the people of North Carolina and for almost all of its rural residents. 

Many residents falsely assume that regular well tests performed by the county check for contaminants like pesticides.

Unless there is known contamination counties do not regularly test for pesticides in new wells, even if well is dug on top of old farmland – it is up to the homeowner to ask for a pesticide test.

You can request a pesticide test from the county or from the private sector. It will cost about $100. If your well is contaminated, contact the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Wake Co. Dept. of Environmental Services

Address:336 Fayetteville St.,Raleigh

Times: Monday–Friday, 8:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.

Phone: (919)856-7400

* Enco Laboratories Inc. in Cary

Note: EPA recommends this company

Address: 102 Woodwinds Industrial Court, Cary, NC, 27511

Phone: (919) 467-3090

If you live outside Wake County, click here for your county's health department contact information.

Charlotte Huffman

An award-winning journalist with an investigative edge, Charlotte has driven legislative change with reports on workplace safety concerns and contaminated groundwater. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

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