What lies beneath

  • Sarah Gilman

 

It started with a rumor.

A pregnant woman heard warnings of birth defects among children born in her subdivision and contacted state health officials. The rumor was reportedly false, but tests revealed that the ground and water beneath the neighborhood were laced with poison.

This is Barber Orchard, just outside of Waynesville, N.C. From 1903 to the mid-'80s, these 438 acres were a productive apple orchard. Then a bank foreclosed and sold the land off in chunks. Houses, businesses and churches were built. But though the apple trees were gone, the underground piping system that sprayed them with pesticides left behind unusually high levels of toxic chemicals: arsenic, lead, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, lindane, DDT and its breakdown products.

Locals were told to filter their water or use the municipal system. From late 1999 to 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency oversaw a $4 million emergency removal of soil from 28 yards. In 2001, the neighborhood was declared a Superfund site. And this month, the EPA plans to begin removing another 127,374 cubic yards of contaminated soil, a task that will require over 100 truck trips per day, last until September 2011 and reportedly cost $15 million.

It's the sort of story Westerners are accustomed to, but usually the pollution is from industry or mining -- the cancer-causing asbestos that lingers in the soil of Libby, Mont., say -- not farming. Indeed, officials responding to the orchard disaster felt they were breaking new ground. "We could be creating a guide for how regulatory agencies are going to handle this problem down the road," Steve Spurlin, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA's response and removal branch in Barber Orchard, told the Mount Airy News in 1999. "And it's not just apple orchards. People are building in (everything from) orange groves to cottonfields."

In the West, some 5.5 million acres of former farmland have been plowed under to make way for new development over the past 28 years. But a decade after contamination was discovered at Barber, how good are we at detecting and managing such problems? Not very, it turns out.

In this issue's cover story -- the product of months of investigation -- contributing editor Rebecca Clarren reveals a regulatory safety net full of holes. The federal government has not taken the lead on the issue; no Western state mandates testing for pesticides prior to conversion of farmland to private homes and businesses. Homeowners are often left holding the bag. And testing, to say nothing of remediation, is expensive.

And so the threat posed by lingering pesticides has become like a rumor itself: uncertain, but enough to keep you awake at night, wondering -- in a world where people are exposed to hundreds of synthetic chemicals before they're even born -- just what are your children playing in, every day?