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?

High Country News Classifieds
  • 2023 SEASONAL AND FULL-TIME POSITIONS AVAILABLE!
    Advance your career while completing vital forest and watershed restoration in wild and scenic northern Sierra!
  • CONSERVATION EASEMENT PROGRAM MANAGER
    We are seeking a dedicated natural resources professional to lead FRLT's Conservation Easement Stewardship Program. This position is responsible for maintaining professional working relationships with...
  • PUBLIC PROGRAMS MANAGER
    We are looking for a hands-on leader to bring our public programs to life in Sierra Valley and across the Watershed. This role offers a...
  • MATADOR RANCH MANAGER
    The Matador Ranch Manager directs operations, communication, and maintenance for TNC Montana's Matador Ranch preserve with a focus on ecological management and restoration, grazing management,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - THRIVE HOOD RIVER (OREGON)
    Thrive Hood River (Oregon) is looking for a collaborative leader who cares deeply about Hood River's wild places, farmland and the quality of life in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities....
  • NORTH FORK RECREATION DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR
    The NFPPRD District Administrator provides leadership and managerial services associated with the Recreation District. Facilities include a seasonal pool, ballfields, bike trails, tennis/pickleball and skateboarding....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, BADLANDS CONSERVATION ALLIANCE
    The Executive Director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA) builds and leads a premiere North Dakota advocacy group that serves to protect the ecology of...
  • CLIMATE FELLOW
    Application deadline: Monday, March 6th, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST. Anticipated start date: May 15, 2023 About the position Are you ready to craft an...
  • RISING LEADERS MANAGER
    Application deadline: Monday, March 27, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST Anticipated start date: May 22 or May 30, 2023 About the position Do you want...
  • SENIOR SPECIALIST, LANDSCAPE CONNECTIVITY YELLOWSTONE TO YUKON CONSERVATION INITIATIVE
    About the Organization Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization with a mission to connect and protect wildlife habitat from...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a Virginia Spencer Davis fellow. The...
  • GRANTS MANAGER
    The Grants Manager is a passionate information manager, fundraiser, and communicator versed in government and foundation grant and cooperative agreement writing and management, specifically to...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Communications Director is a passionate communications professional versed in conservation and regenerative agriculture, as well as nonprofit communications and data management across several program...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Education and Outreach Director is a people-oriented facilitator, communications wizard, and team leader who has experience designing, managing, and fundraising for land based educational...
  • ADOBE HOME FOR SALE
    Restored traditional adobe home in No. New Mexico on 1+ acre site, irrigation water, separate large shop/studio. Please email for photos/full description.
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM SPECIALIST
    hat We Can Achieve Together: If you are a detailed individual that takes pride in your accuracy, this position may be the perfect opportunity for...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...