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Uphill battle to purge Barber’s Orchard of dirty soil

Residents of Barber’s Orchard will safely be able to eat the dirt on their lots after a $15 million federal cleanup of the subdivision.

Trace levels of arsenic in the soil date to its former days as an apple orchard, when underground pipes leached arsenic-laced pesticide, landing it on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list.

Given the cleanup cost, it might have been cheaper to condemn the contaminated land and pay the owners for it, but that’s not what EPA does.

“That was my first thought too. The law does not allow us to do that in this case. If there is a risk the law requires us to clean it up as best as we can,” said Jon Bornholm, an EPA Superfund project manager out of Atlanta.

State taxpayers are on the hook for 10 percent of the clean-up cost. The state signed a contract pledging its commitment back in 2005.

While it is a dramatically different economic — and political — landscape today, the state can’t go back on the commitment, according to Nile Testerman, a state environmental engineer who serves as a liaison to the EPA on Superfund projects.

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“They have already allocated the money for this clean up,” said Testerman.

When contaminates were discovered in 1999, the EPA tested the soil and water on all the lots where people were living. Of the 90 homes in the subdivision at the time, about 25 required immediate soil removal.

“We only cleaned up the manicured portion of contaminated yards. If somebody owned five acres, but only half an acre of that was a yard with a lawn, that half acre is the only part that was cleaned up,” said Bornholm.

The cost during the first phase was $5 million, plus another $2.3 million to run a water line to service homeowners who could not safely drink from their wells.

Ensuing soil tests of the entire subdivision showed that 45 percent of the remaining acreage is contaminated. The costly cleanup requires digging up and hauling off the top foot of soil from 88 acres.

The work is supposed to be done in September, but contractors have been working six months already and only removed 25,000 cubic yards — there’s another 90,000 to go. Bornholm seemed skeptical they would finish by September but said the contractors claim it will get faster as they go.

The work is being performed under a no-bid contract by ERS, Emergency Rapid Response. Instead of awarding the job to the lowest bidder, EPA is being billed hourly for the labor and equipment used on the job by ERS, a pre-approved contractor for Superfund sites.

“In a project like this there are too many unknowns,” Bornholm said. “The agency felt this was the cheapest approach versus going out for bid.”

The contractor, based in St. Louis, has about 40 workers on site. Bringing in clean soil accounts for about $3 million of the total project cost. That portion of the job was bid out, going to Caroline-A-Contracting run by Burton Edwards of Maggie Valley.


Where to put all that dirt?

Trucking away and disposing of the old dirt will account for about a third of the project’s cost.

The soil must be dumped in a lined landfill, but it’s a lot of dirt, and would make a pretty big dent in most landfills. In Haywood County, where taxpayers recently ponied up $4.5 million for a landfill expansion, there wasn’t the space to spare. Buncombe County’s landfill turned it away as well.

“Haywood County does not have the space and Buncombe simply does not want it,” Bornholm said.

The EPA initially found a willing taker at a landfill in South Carolina. That option was dropped in favor of a landfill in Athens, Tenn. Trucking costs, plus landfill fees for every ton, would still be exorbitant, however.

A cheaper — and closer to home — option may be on the horizon. Evergreen paper mill in Canton owns a private landfill for its industrial waste, and has recently filled up one of its cells. It needs dirt, lots of it, to cap it off, and Barbers Orchard certainly has some to spare. It could well be a match made in heaven.

The mill and EPA are still in negotiations over a soil deal. The mill must also get permission from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to use the soil for landfill cover.

With contractors stuck in holding pattern over the dirt’s ultimate resting point, they’ve had to construct a second lined holding area to stock pile it.

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