An industry’s waste was used to fertilize farm fields in SC. Now wells are polluted
Sammy Fretwell – November 19, 2021
Eleven years after moving to rural Darlington County, Kim Weatherford learned that dangerous chemicals had seeped into the drinking water her family depends on.
She was stunned. How could such a thing occur in a pastoral, out-of-the-way place like that? Weatherford asked
“It just doesn’t seem right that this could have even happened,’’ she said. “I don’t want to get sick.’’
Weatherford is among dozens of eastern South Carolina residents whose wells have been contaminated by an emerging class of chemicals, found in an industrial plant’s sludge that landowners spread on fields for years to fertilize crops.
The contamination is serious enough that state and federal regulators are urging families with highly polluted wells not to drink the water unless they install devices to filter out the contaminants. The contamination is from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, a growing source of water pollution nationally.
So far, 46 wells in the areahave been found with PFA compounds in the water, even as regulators test more wells to determine the extent of the contamination, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Of that, 23 wells have levels that exceed a federally recommended safety limit, agency officials said Thursday night.
Pollution from PFAs is an increasing concern across the country because the chemicals, which few people had heard of 20 years ago, do not break down quickly in the environment and are considered highly toxic. These toxins have had a variety of industrial uses, ranging from inclusion in Teflon to firefighting foam.
PFAs are suspected of causing cancer, kidney problems, development disabilities in children, and other ailments. Those exposed to the chemicals over a period of years are considered most at risk of developing health problems. Problems have popped up in recent years in some South Carolina communities, including at least two mobile home parks with wells suspected of being polluted by Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter County. Among the PFAs of most concern are PFOS and PFOA.
State and federal agencies have tied the source of contamination Weatherford is dealing with to an abandoned industrial plant that used waste sludge to fertilize farm fields in three eastern South Carolina counties: Darlington, Chesterfield and Marlboro.
The Galey and Lord factory, a textile dying and finishing plant that opened in the mid 1960s, supplied some of the sludge from 1993 to 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PFAs were commonly used in the textile industry as fabric finishing additives.
“The source of the contamination is suspected of being connected to the land farming of the (wastewater) sludges from the former Galey and Lord textile mills,’’ the EPA said in a document posted on its website.
All told, 304 agricultural fields totaling nearly 10,000 acres received treated sludge from the Galey and Lord plant, the agency said. One area with groundwater contamination is at Journey’s End Road in Darlington County. The fields where the sludge was applied were owned by entities other than Galey and Lord, DHEC said.
The EPA and DHEC are still trying to determine how much of the sludge contained PFAs and related compounds.
The Galey and Lord facility operated for decades, employing thousands of local residents, but shut down in 2016 after pollution was discovered on the property. The company had a 2013 cleanup agreement with DHEC, but didn’t complete the work as required, records show.
Now, the EPA has proposed making the abandoned Galey and Lord location a federal Superfund site for cleanup. Superfund sites are among the most polluted places in the country and often are cleaned up at taxpayer expense because the owners can’t — or won’t — do the work.
Already, the EPA has conducted emergency Superfund work in the area, installing filters in homes with PFA-tainted wells. The efforts have cost the EPA at least $250,000, but that does not include all of the work the agency has done so far, said Bryan Vasser, an EPA official involved in the cleanup effort.
In addition to efforts to protect drinking water, the EPA also removed 2,400 abandoned containers and 100,000 gallons of flammable liquids and other waste last year from the Galey and Lord site in the Society Hill community. In addition, the agency hauled away 53,000 pounds of solid waste, some of it flammable and corrosive, an EPA fact sheet says.
Not only is drinking water tainted, but so are rivers and creeks nearby.
Wetlands along Cedar Creek and the Great Pee Dee River were found to be polluted with two types of PFAs — known as PFOA and PFOS — as well as arsenic, chromium, copper, lead and manganese, all of which are toxic. The same poisonous materials were found in wastewater treatment basins at the industrial site, according to the federal environmental agency.
The Great Pee Dee River and Cedar Creek next to and downstream of the Galey and Lord site “are impacted by the facility, posing human health and ecological risks,’’ the EPA says on its website.
Efforts to locate a representative of Galey and Lord were unsuccessful.
Officials with the non-profit S.C. Environmental Law Project said the PFAs-contamination in drinking water is a particular concern for the state.
South Carolina has no specific statewide limits on PFA-pollution in drinking water. Federal oversight needs strengthening, the law project says.
“It is extremely alarming to me,’’ said Ben Cunningham, an attorney with the law project who is helping Weatherford, the Darlington County property owner. “It’s another example of how flawed the drinking water issue is in South Carolina and how we have a lot of work to do to provide everybody with good drinking water.’’
Dave Hargett, an environmental consultant from Greenville who is familiar with PFAs, said the discovery that waste sludge may have polluted drinking water wells is “a big deal.”
Some people didn’t realize in the past that sludge could produce toxins like PFAs, he said. Sludge from Galey and Lord was applied on farm fields for about a decade, with DHEC’s approval, records show.
Waste sludge “had, to a farmer, beneficial reuse value, with nutrients they could put on their ag fields,’’ Hargett said. “But they didn’t know they were getting all this crap with it.’’
In response to questions from The State, DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said the agency didn’t require testing for PFOAs or PFOS when sludge was applied to the landscape in the past “because these compounds had not yet been identified as compounds of concern..’’
Weatherford, 53, lives across the street from an agricultural field she suspects of using the tainted sludge. It’s a scenic spot that was an attraction when she and her family moved from Clarendon County to Darlington County in 2010 after building their new house..
Weatherford, who lives with her husband and 21-year-old son, said they are now buying bottled water to drink and brush their teeth with.
But Weatherford wonders whether PFAs were in her drinking water long before they were discovered this past summer by DHEC. She worries that it may affect her family’s health. PFAs are known as “forever chemicals’’ because they don’t break down quickly in the environment.
“It is very scary,’’ she said. “I worry about my husband, myself, my mother-in-law. Most of my worry comes for my child.’’
Test results obtained by The State show that DHEC’s water testing found contamination in the Weatherford’s well at 120 parts per trillion. The recommended federal limit is 70 parts per trillion. The water in her in-laws nearby home contained levels of PFAs that were even higher, Weatherford said.
For now, the EPA has offered to put a filter on her well to get rid of the PFAs in the water, but she declined because it will become expensive to operate. And it’s not a long-term solution to the water pollution, she and others say.
The late Sen. Hugh Leatherman, in one of his last official acts before he died this month, asked a local utility to help the Weatherfords.
“Although the Environmental Protection Agency has offered to install a filtration system in the Weatherford home, it is not a long-term solution,’’ Leatherman wrote in an Oct. 14 letter to the Darlington County Water and Sewer Authority. “Ms. Weatherford and her neighbors would greatly prefer to have access’’ to the public water system.
“I would very much appreciate anything that your agency can do to provide safe drinking water for Ms. Weatherford and her neighbors.’’
Weatherford said she and her family will have to deal with the problem they’ve been handed.
She’s angry that tighter controls were not placed on the sludge spread on farm fields in her community. Galey and Lord had a history of polluting the environment, according to a 2013 news story in The State about companies that repeatedly break environmental laws.
Regulators “have known for so long they have been breaking environmental laws,’’ she said. “And here it is 2021, and we are out of luck because the company is out of business. How did they let this go this far?”