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Source of water contamination at Mangum Estates

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WAKE FOREST, N.C. -

The Environmental Protection Agency is still searching for the source of TCE contamination at Mangum Estates, but NBC-17 has learned a ravine on the land where Mangum Estates now sits was used for dumping household trash and other large items.

TCE is a known carcinogen and can be deadly if consumed or inhaled at high levels. If TCE is illegally dumped, the chemical is known to sink into the groundwater and spread into wells.

Mangum Estates, a 28-lot community in Wake Forest with half a million dollar homes, was formerly a dairy farm owned by Gaius Mangum. Grayson Northwind LLC, owned by Mike Poupard, purchased the 20-acre property from Mangum for approximately $800,000 in 2006.

At the time that the land was a dairy farm, farmers and their neighbors commonly used the ravine on the property as a neighborhood dump for household trash and other large items.

The ravine is now surrounded by the homes with contaminated water.

In a letter from 2006 obtained by NBC-17, Grayson Northwind asked Mangum to reduce the property cost by $100,000 to cover clean up expenses.

"A gulley on the property has been used by family members and friends to dump major trash for a number of years," the letter reads. "We thought maybe it could be hidden with the road dirt, but Wake County will have none of that."

NBC-17 asked Wake County about any knowledge of an attempt to cover up trash at Mangum Estates. A spokeswoman said, after talking with managers in Planning and Environmental Services "nobody has any knowledge or record of the letter or the comment."

 Wake County does not do environmental surveys on proposed projects. Attorneys with the North Carolina Real Estate Commission tell NBC-17 if a builder or developer knows there are environmental hazards, then they are obligated to tell prospective buyers.

Upon digging through the ravine, NBC-17 found trash buried beneath weeds and dirt -- including a bicycle seat, water heater and a refrigerator. The EPA and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also started digging, excavating the property away from NBC-17's cameras.

"We felt like it is a potential source of the TCE that has been found in the wells out there," said U.S. EPA On-Scene Coordinator Ken Rhame.

NBC-17 obtained photos from DENR showing some of the trash uncovered during the excavation. The excavation did not turn up a smoking gun, such as a TCE drum, and while the EPA has not confirmed the dump is the source of the contamination, Rhame says it is likely.

After discovering the neighborhood five years, Brandon Miller and his wife settled in Mangum Estates. But in late October 2012, Miller was surprised to learn water from private wells in the neighborhood is contaminated with TCE.

"We looked at the neighborhood, drove around the area, liked being out in the country and the atmosphere that was out here," Brandon Miller said. "I think everyone has the right to clean and enjoyable land."

Like other neighbors, when Miller bought his home, he was unaware a nearby property was once used as a dump. Neighbors say that when they bought their homes they assumed the dump was just an overgrown ravine.

At first glance, the property does not show any signs of garbage.

"Shocked and angry would be the two words that come to mind," Miller said after learning about the 2006 letter from Grayson Northwind to Mangum.

Homeowner Liz Allen previously told NBC-17, "We are stuck. You own a house and there is contamination. Obviously, how are you ever going to sell it in the future?"

Poupard acknowledged that his company knew about some trash in the ravine and says it cleaned up the visible garbage but had no knowledge of any buried trash or TCE contamination.

"We didn't know that that trash was there. I'm a successful home builder; I'm not in the business of burying trash on our lots," he said. 

When asked about the 2006 letter to Mangum, Poupard said the explanation is "simple."

"We saw some debris on the ground out there and we were negotiating the cost of a piece of property. That's all it was," he said.

NBC-17 asked Poupard about the $100,000 clean up estimate mentioned in the letter. The clean-up cost represents about 12 percent of Poupard's $800,000 investment.

"When you're negotiating, the land cost is quite expensive. So when you put it in perspective of the cost of a piece of property, that's not a lot of cost. Again, you're just negotiating the cost of the piece of property," Poupard said.

"Basically, it was just a negotiation tactic?" NBC-17 asked.

Poupard responded, "You could look at it that way -- yes."

Poupard says his company cares about the environment and has since come forward and offered to help clean up the dump. It is a step in the right direction for Mangum Estates homeowners who are hopeful their properties will be restored to the level of cleanliness they expect.

"When we are all said and done with this thing, we want the cleanest and most pristine piece of land that we originally thought that we had," Miller said.

Miller's well is not contaminated but he fears it's only a matter of time.

"It is upsetting to know that something is out there that could be a potential hazard," Miller said.

Miller says he wants Mangum Estates to be connected to a water line. In addition, he plans to purchase water filters despite the fact that his home does not have any contamination.

The EPA paid for filters to be installed in almost a dozen homes where TCE detections were above the federal safety standard.

Rhame says the EPA is researching available options for getting the Mangum Estates community a permanent solution. Options include constructing a water line that would connect residents to a nearby community well.

"But there is no point in us spending tax dollars to bring a water line in if only one or two homes want to hook up to it," Rhame said.

DENR is looking into whether the clean up at Mangum Estates would qualify for state funding.

In the Stonewalls neighborhood, construction is underway to connect residents to a water line. The EPA has spent $1.8 million to construct several water lines that connect dozens of residents to nearby community wells managed by utilities company Aqua. All residents in Stonewalls are expected to be hooked up next month. 

Rhame says the source of the contamination at Mangum Estates is not linked to the contamination discovered earlier this year on Stony Hill Road near Stonewalls. The source of the contamination at Mangum Estates is still under investigation.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered TCE contamination in two dozen wells in the Stonewalls neighborhood and along Stony Hill Road, a community about two and a half miles south of Miller's home.

In October, NBC-17's investigation "Poison in the Water" exposed the source of contamination on Stony Hill Road and revealed how DENR ignored its own evidence of the danger. DENR failed to warn families that their water could be threatening their health, and a DENR administrator told NBC-17 that the Stonewalls neighborhood was not high enough on the state's priority list. 

 The "Poison in the Water" investigation also revealed a bigger problem. There are at least 2,000 sites statewide where DENR knows there is TCE contamination that is likely spreading into the water of unsuspecting families. DENR's Environmental Program Supervisor Charlotte Jesneck said the department only has enough resources to address less than one-third of the known sites.

The contamination in Mangum Estates is an example of how widespread the TCE problem is.

Following NBC-17's investigation, a couple looking to purchase a home in Mangum Estates requested their Realtor test the well of the for-sale home. The unoccupied house tested positive for TCE and the Realtor alerted the EPA.

The EPA sampled nearly two dozen homes in Mangum Estates. Water test results showed 13 wells were contaminated with TCE; nine of them contained dangerous levels.

As a result of NBC-17's investigation, two state lawmakers are calling for change that would require local and state governments to create a system for notifying residents who live in harm's way.

New legislation may require counties to test wells for volatile organic compounds. The VOC test identifies TCE contamination and is not part of routine well tests in N.C.

 

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>>

Poison in the Water

There are at least 2,000 sites statewide where DENR knows there is TCE contamination that is likely spreading into the water of unsuspecting families. More>>

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