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?

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.