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Additional testing under way for SCC shooting range

fr scctestingThe lead-contaminated shooting range at Southwestern Community College in Webster is in for another round of testing after the state called for further sampling to determine levels of several other potentially toxic substances in the soil.

The additional sampling will measure levels of antimony, zinc, copper and arsenic, but its main focus will be polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. 

“When we grill our meat and get that really delicious char, we’re producing PAHs,” said Sandy Mort, environmental toxicologist for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “Any organic material that combusts, that’s going to produce this compound called PAH. We would determine them ubiquitous.”

They’re a natural substance, but when present in high concentrations they can cause a problem. Accidentally eating soil with high PAH levels is dangerous — but environmental issues are probably the more likely impact. 

“They could be a problem if they are attached to the soil and then they travel with that soil in heavy rainstorm to a surface water,” Mort said. “They can be toxic to the organisms that live in an aquatic environment, either in the water column like the fish or the algae or the insect-like things that live in the mud.” 

Because the range is located just uphill from the Tuckasegee River, with a seasonal stream flowing even nearer to the shooting range, that’s a real concern. 

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Currently, the shooting range is used as training grounds for public safety classes at SCC as well as for officers with a variety of law enforcement agencies in the region. But in the past, skeet shooting was part of the officers’ training to give them practice tracking moving targets, and back in the day skeet targets were held together using creosote. Creosote is primarily composed of PAH.

“I thought it would be good to test for some additional parameters,” said Harvi Cooper, environmental chemist for DEQ. 

Cooper, who is based in Raleigh, is in charge of the case on the state’s end but has only recently begun working on the project. After Roberta Proctor, who had been the environmental chemist on the case, retired Dec. 31, movement forward on the sampling and cleanup slowed down as the transition took place. 

Concern over the shooting range began in 2014, when the college approached Jackson County for funding to fix up the range — including removing the estimated 60 tons of lead shot stuck in the berm. That number led to questioning about whether those 60 tons of lead had caused any environmental contamination, and testing revealed levels as much as 73 times higher than the amount considered safe. 

So, SCC began considering plans to get the place remediated, asking for bids to start the clean-up process. Because the soil was too contaminated to be safe for a landfill as-is, the cleanup would involve excavating the soil, mixing it with phosphates that would bind to the lead and keep it from washing out of the soil into the environment, trucking that mixture to a landfill and replacing the excavated area with new dirt. 

Those plans are on hold, pending the outcome of the PAH testing. The additional sampling and reporting, to be done by Asheville-based ECS Carolinas, is estimated to cost $6,100 and be finished by late April. 

Once the sampling is done and the levels reported, the next step will be to figure out exactly what kinds of PAH are responsible, if any, Mort said. The substance is part of a group containing about 16 different types. 

“Those have a very broad range of chemical structures, and that chemical structure would relate to how they move through the environment, how toxic they are, how easily they are taken up by organisms,” Mort said. 

It’s possible that the test results could impact the type of remediation that’s ultimately needed to get the site cleaned up, and it will be impossible to say for sure until the numbers come back. But Mort has a hunch. 

“Without seeing the data we never know for sure, but it would be my semi-educated guess that if we treat for the lead, that will probably take care of the PAH issue,” she said. “I think lead will be the determining factor in how the soil needs to be removed.”

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