U.S. Water News Online
RALEIGH, N.C. -- More than 770 closed landfills dot North
Carolina, and most of them are invisibly polluting groundwater, a
state official says.
The state is cataloguing the sites, which include 70 in the
Charlotte region, but has no money to learn whether neighbors are
drinking contaminated water, much less clean them up.
"We have very little information on them. In fact, we haven't
located a lot of them," said Charlotte Jesneck, who heads the
Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch.
"Based on individual evidence, based on other states' experience,
you can conclude that very likely we're going to have a lot of
Town dumps, industrial disposal sites, and private landfills that
opened before about 1970 faced none of the litany of environmental
safeguards now required, including liners and systems to collect
water that filters through decomposing debris. Unchecked, this
leachate can pollute groundwater.
Those dumps accepted a wide range of material, from old newspapers
and kitchen scraps to used motor oil, paint, and chemicals.
"You can find contamination at all of these sites," said Arthur
Mouberry, the state's groundwater section chief. The size of the
landfill and how close it is to houses that depend on well water
determines how much of a potential threat it poses, he said.
Contamination from landfills can be so severe that they end up on
the National Priorities List, also known as Superfund. The list is a
catalogue of cleanup sites that pose the greatest threats to public
health and the environment. The only Carolinas landfill listed is in
Lexington County, S.C.
Landfills are officially blamed for 58 N.C. groundwater
contamination sites, but Mouberry said that number doesn't reflect
the true extent of contamination. He said he's pressing solid waste
officials to add more landfills to the state's database of 14,000
groundwater sites, which is published on a state Web site under
"databases" at http://gw.ehnr.state.nc.us/ as a way of warning
neighbors of potential contamination.
The Harnett County dump where Mouberry hauled trash as a boy is
now covered in 20-foot pines.
"You look at it, and you'd never know," he said.
Most of the old municipal landfills were filled with organic
material that degraded within a few years, leaving a core of material
whose decomposition has virtually stopped, said Bob Borden, a civil
engineering professor at N.C. State University who has monitored
groundwater at Wake County landfills.
What's left, he said, may be buried tree stumps and the like.
Water leaching through that sort of debris may be discolored by
tannins, such as swampwater, but not particularly hazardous.
"I'm not saying I'd want to drink it, but putting your hand in it
surely wouldn't hurt," he said.
Leaking underground storage tanks make up most of the N.C.
Unlike leaking tanks, which can be dug up and removed, polluted
groundwater at landfills would have to be treated in place, Mouberry
said. The process can take years.
All N.C. landfills operating after January 1998 had to have liners
to keep contamination from reaching groundwater.
Jesneck supervises a staff of five who ride herd on 2,000
hazardous sites, including the landfills. A state cleanup fund of
about $3.5 million has no ongoing source of funding.
No records exist to show exact locations for about two-thirds of
the 776 old landfills that had been catalogued by mid-January,
Groundwater hasn't been tested around most of the sites, she said.
The list of old landfills includes some opened as long ago as the
1940s and are now called "orphan" sites because no one still living
is responsible for their cleanup.
"It's going to be hard, especially in these real old locations, to
determine liability or even find anybody who knows anything about
them," Jesneck said.
Two companies are now under contract with the state to locate the
"That's the best protection you can give people -- get it on the
public record," Jesneck said. "The rest of the things, we'll do if
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