CHERAW, S.C. - Two long years after an intense environmental cleanup started at a toxic waste dump behind a former textile plant in Cheraw, Channel 9 has learned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be there indefinitely.
Cancer-causing PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were dumped in a creek by Burlington Industries in Cheraw up until the 1970s. No one knew about the danger there until 2016. Now, more lawsuits are being filed over health concerns and property damage linked to the contamination.
Barbara Bullard, who lives on sliding hill road, has joined one of those suits.
"We lost all of our vehicles, more than 90 percent of our possessions." Bullard is talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which devastated much of Chesterfield County, dumped 22 inches of rain on Cheraw, and left a foot of water in her home.
For most people in the area, water damage was the only concern. For her, it was much more, when the EPA showed up.
"They came and said we had to leave immediately. The house wasn't safe to spend one night in it," she said.
It was the same story for four of her neighbors, because of contamination from PCBs that washed up out of a creek and into yards and even homes.
PCBs are man-made chemicals once used in factories as coolant for electrical equipment, until they were banned in 1979. Four other homes had mud tainted with PCBs wash in during the flooding. They were evacuated immediately. Some are still empty.
Highland Industries’ plant now sits on Highway 9 on the site of the former Burlington plant, a textile operation that dumped the PCBs for decades. The poison oozed into creeks, parks, and backyards, like Tametrice Merriman's on Pecan Drive.
She doesn't let her two young children play in the backyard, concerned about their safety, even though EPA cleanup there is finished.
"It's just shocking. Just knowing how dangerous this is and how long it's been here," Merriman said.
Of course, she thought the cleanup was finished once before too, then Hurricane Florence brought round two.
Channel 9 was there when the EPA first deemed the area a Superfund site and in 2017 started cleaning up contaminated ground at a half-dozen homes right behind the plant. In some places, the agency dug down more than 2 feet to remove tainted soil. Merriman's house one of those properties.
Then they realized it was a much bigger problem than a few homes. The creek had carried the toxic material down to Huckleberry Park that once had playground equipment for children.
After PCBs were found in the soil, it was closed, roped off and the playground equipment removed. Last year, the EPA began removing hundreds of tons of bad soil and replacing it.
The work had just finished when Hurricane Florence hit. The cleanup started over, and the park is still closed.
Merriman showed Channel 9 the new squares of sod put down in her yard, where PCBs were discovered a second time after Florence after the cleanup.
"Come to find out after the hurricane it go recontaminated," she said. "They had to come out again."
That was enough for George and Catherine Martin, who also live on the creek and saw the water rise right up to their house.
Their yard was contaminated, and they filed the first lawsuit against Highland Industries alleging that the company knew or should have known the property was contaminated when they bought the plant from Burlington and failed to take action.
The Martins want a full clean-up and damages, because they can't sell their home. They've been trying for more than two years, but now must disclose to potential buyers that contamination was found in their yard.
"The house isn't worth anything anymore, and the property's not. And I got all this money tied up here," George Martin told Channel 9.
After Hurricane Florence spread contamination again into areas already cleaned up, Highland Industries agreed to work with the EPA to clean up its own property.
Highland has ripped out all the trees behind the plant, installed fences and is now cleaning up the ditch, where at least part of the problem started decades ago.
Channel 9 went to EPA headquarters in Atlanta to ask how long the work in Cheraw will continue. Matt Huyser has been overseeing the project for three years.
"The unfortunate part is that people did live next to this without knowing about it for a long period of time," Huyser said. 'We are now doing additional investigation and cleanup if necessary."
The reason for the extended stay by the EPA is the project has been put on a national priorities list.
The agency is testing the soil on the entire creek, wherever surface water flows from the plant more than 2 miles to the Pee Dee River. If unsafe levels of PCBs are found there, another round of cleanup will begin, and that could take years.
For Bullard, every day is now a struggle.
"Nothing's changed for me," she said. "The EPA came and cleaned all my stuff, then threw it all in a pile," she said as she pointed to a large clutter of furniture, boxes and odds and ends in her carport.
She feels like her life is on hold, since she was told she shouldn't even walk around in her yard because of the contamination.
"I’m angry. I'm frustrated," she said. "They just left, and I can't get anyone to help me."
She hopes a class-action lawsuit soon to be filed may help her and possibly hundreds of other potential plaintiffs.
Channel 9 has reached out multiple times over several months to Highland Industries and the former owners, Burlington, for comment. They have not responded to any of our requests.
Highland has also not filed a legal response to any pending lawsuits except to move Martin’s case to federal court.
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