Federal contractors performing a $15 million cleanup of Barber’s Orchard have violated state erosion laws, failing to keep the arsenic-tainted soil from eroding and washing away, according to state environmental inspectors.
The massive operation calls for digging up the top foot of soil from 88 acres, trucking it off and hauling in clean dirt to replace it.
“It’s been something to watch them trying to keep this from washing away,” said Carolyn Large, a homeowner in the Haywood County subdivision, whose view now includes a barren hillside of dirt rutted with gulleys from the rain.
See also: Uphill battle to purge Barber’s Orchard of dirty soil
Trace levels of arsenic in the soil date back to its days as an apple orchard, when pesticides leached into the soil from a system of underground pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site more than a decade ago and is overseeing the cleanup.
“The whole effort is to remediate the site and we don’t want to do more damage by remediating it than it we had left in place,” said Landon Davis, a state groundwater specialist based in Asheville.
A massive team of state inspectors descended on the site last month: officials from both Asheville and Raleigh across three separate branches of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
See also: Is it worth it?
The team of inspectors found sediment had washed into nearby creeks, onto neighbors’ property and even down one woman’s well.
“I’m surprised they don’t have better control of that,” said Tom Beaty, another homeowner in Barber’s Orchard. “With the steepness of the slopes, I don’t know how they are going to do it.”
The contractors fell down in two areas: they not only had an inadequate plan to deal with sediment from the get go, but over-extended themselves by laying bare too much of the mountainside at one time, according to the state environmental agencies.
“Our concerns are that the site did lose sediment to the stream, and it did not appear there were adequate measures in place to prevent that from happening in future rain events,” said Roger Edwards, water quality specialist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
The EPA contractor erred by relying solely on rows of fabric silt fences and straw bales, which is hardly adequate when faced with acres and acres of a stripped mountainside, said Gray Hauser, a sediment specialist with the N.C. Division of Land Quality.
The standard practice in mountainous terrain is sediment basins, which act like a retaining pond to catch sediment-laden rainwater running off the site.
The cleanup has three main steps: slash down the trees, dig up the contaminated soil, and bring in new soil.
The contractor moved too rapidly across the mountain, slashing new areas for excavation before old ones were covered back up, according to inspectors.
“Obviously they need to get what they got opened up under control,” Hauser said.
A drive through Barber’s Orchard reveals giant swaths of the mountainside that are slashed and partially excavated, then left exposed. Contractors have more than 45 acres in some stage of active excavation. Only 10 to 15 acres have been finished and covered back up with clean dirt.
“I think what happened is they went too quickly on the work that was being done,” said Nile Testerman, a state environmental engineer who serves as a liaison to the EPA on Superfund projects. “Now they have stepped back.”
Jon Bornholm, the EPA project manager for the site, was a little more forgiving on the subject.
“I think they are feeling that out right now,” Bornholm said when asked about the contractor’s zeal for opening up new areas. As for tempering that zeal?
“They have come to that decision on their own. They are not excavating anymore until they get caught up,” Bornholm said.
State inspectors say they told the contractor as much.
“That was our suggestion, that they stabilize existing areas and not open up more than they can get stabilized and protected,” Edwards said.
The project will cost more if done piecemeal, with smaller sections at a time being worked on, however.
“One issue is the cost of the efficiency of the excavation and backfill. If you do small parcels at a time, the cost will go up,” said Will Smith, the onsite EPA field rep.
The site poses sediment challenges to say the least. The very nature of the job — stripping the top soil from a vast expanse of a steep mountainside — is an erosion nightmare.
“We have lots of exposed areas so when there’s heavy rain, we have lots of erosion,” Bornholm said. “We know there is going to be erosion. It is keeping it contained.”
In one area, contractors hit the groundwater table during excavation, opening up hidden springs.
“They had a steady flow of water over raw earth. It was pushing a lot of sediment off site,” Hauser said.
That was in addition to some major rains in April, one that brought an inch and a half of rain in a day.
Unchecked erosion from Barber’s Orchard heads downhill into Richland Creek, which then runs through the heart of Waynesville.
“If you have that long enough you will have deposition of sediment in that creek and that’s not good for habitat. Even if it is clean soil. But worse yet is runoff from Orchard soil, that is a big concern,” said Landon Davis, a groundwater specialist with the state Aquifer Protection agency.
Smith said none of the contaminated soil has washed away. He said erosion was limited to areas already covered over with clean dirt.
However, Hauser said sediment has washed off all portions of the project — including areas where contaminated soil was actively being excavated.
Who has authority?
State inspectors weren’t sure at first how much authority they had.
“I spent a good bit of time trying to research what our options are,” Hauser said.
“This is unique situation,” Edwards said.
As a federal Superfund site, the project is exempt from filing a sediment and erosion control plan with either the county or state. It isn’t exempt from state erosion laws, however.
“We don’t have to get the permits, but we have to meet the substantive requirements, which means control the runoff as best as you can,” Bornholm said.
State law dictates that no soil is supposed to leave the site.
Without a plan, sediment officers don’t know until after it is too late whether a site may be destined for erosion problems. The beauty of crafting a sediment plan is feedback from state inspectors.
“One of the main standards of the sediment and erosion control program is to develop a plan before you start and follow the plan,” said Hauser. “The Superfund activities don’t have to have a plan and that makes it very difficult.”
EPA’s Bornholm countered that the contractor did write a sediment and erosion control plan before they started. However, it was only a rough outline of their intention to use straw bales and silt fences. There were no maps showing the streams or the land’s contour, no diagrams of where erosion safeguards should go, and no calculations of how many it would take.
The state also never got a chance to see the contractor’s outline before work started.
“We never approve a sediment and erosion control plan in the state of North Carolina that uses straw bales as their primary means of control,” Hauser said.
The plan would not have met Haywood County’s criteria either, according to Marc Pruett, the Haywood County erosion enforcement officer.
Some Superfund projects get sediment and erosion permits even though they don’t have to, Testerman said. The reason not to — and why sites are exempt in the first place — is usually one of timing, Testerman said.
“When we get ready to clean up these sites, we don’t want the administrative process to hold up the work,” Testerman said.
In this case, time wasn’t exactly of essence, as it might be with a highway chemical spill.
Going forward, Hauser has called on the contractor to do proper sediment plans for each area.
“They were going to develop little plans in-house on each section before they open it up rather than it being an ad hoc process,” Hauser said.
Meanwhile, the Division of Water Quality has asked the EPA contractor to bring in an environmental consultant to delineate the streams, assess negative impacts and come up with a plan to restore them, but that is secondary to stemming the tide of sediment loss from the slopes.
“There is no point in cleaning up the streams until the site is stabilized,” Edwards said.
The contractor was also asked to change its approach for establishing ground covering, by placing netting over seeded areas to keep the seed from washing away until it can get established.
State erosion inspectors still have authority to inspect the site and issue violations and fines. At this stage, no one has issued a formal violation, although Hauser said if it was any other contractor they would have.
“I think they will follow our suggestions. I do believe the contractors are willing to follow our recommendations,” Edwards said.
One orchard’s journey from cutting edge to Superfund
While today people might curse the pollution it caused, the underground pesticide system at Barber’s Orchard was on the cutting edge of agriculture for its time.
A network of underground pipes carried pesticides through the orchard to a series of above ground nozzles. The pressurized system was easily activated, requiring little labor to spray the hillsides of apple trees.
The system was revolutionary. There was only one other system like it, at the Francis Farm apple orchard, also in Haywood County.
“Both of these men were icons of local agriculture,” said Landon Davis, a groundwater specialist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Raleigh.
The downside is that the underground pipes leaked. Barber’s Orchard had a long run — from 1908 to 1988. In its early years, arsenic was an acceptable pesticide used against the codling moth, a major enemy of apple farmers. But the codling moth eventually developed a resistance to arsenic pesticides, requiring more and more of it to get the job done.
In the 1940s, arsenic was replaced with the equally bad DDT — which is now banned as well.
The orchard posed a perfect storm: heavy and prolonged pesticide use of both arsenic and DDT being delivered by pressurized underground pipes that leaked, Davis said.
“This is the only site like this in the country,” Davis said.