Potentially cancer-causing, deadly chemicals in SC water supply

Published: Oct. 3, 2012 at 4:36 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 13, 2012 at 4:36 PM EDT
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A USGS monitoring station installed in a Chesterfield County field.
A USGS monitoring station installed in a Chesterfield County field.
USGS worker collects groundwater from a well in Chesterfield County during an ongoing chemical...
USGS worker collects groundwater from a well in Chesterfield County during an ongoing chemical contamination investigation.
USGS workers install a monitoring device in Juniper Creek in Chesterfield County.
USGS workers install a monitoring device in Juniper Creek in Chesterfield County.
This map shows the entire survey area for the USGS investigation of groundwater contamination...
This map shows the entire survey area for the USGS investigation of groundwater contamination in Chesterfield County.

MCBEE, SC (WIS) - A WIS investigation has uncovered dozens of cases of contaminated private well water contamination in parts of Chesterfield County. Most of the contamination is located near the town of McBee.

In 2007, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control tested 68 public and private wells there after initially finding traces of chemical contamination in the county water utility's lines in 2002. The chemicals are: Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), Ethylene Dibromide (EDB). The water company claims environmental investigators found a third chemical in the water supply; Trichloroethylene, also referred to as "TCE." Of the 68 test samples, DHEC records show 37 wells were either contaminated or showed traces of EDB and DBCP across the area.

Between 2005 and 2009, DHEC records showed elevated levels of DBCP in the Alligator Rural Water system during quarterly inspections that started in January 2005. The agency continued finding the chemical through the end of 2008. In March 2009, DHEC records showed high levels of radium in the county water company's supply.

In the weeks following a May 2009 meeting between DHEC and the water company, Alligator Water spent more than $15 million to install filtering systems to clean the chemicals out of its water system. As of a July 2012 inspection, DHEC found no traces of any chemicals in the Alligator Water system.

The evidence we found shows, since DHEC conducted the 2007 round of water testing, the agency's done little to investigate the cause of the contamination or to clean the aquifer. DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said it's not DHEC's job to do that, "It is nearly, if not absolutely, impossible to track what farming entity used what, and when, in this type of area.  To date, we are familiar with no scientific data that can specifically point to one farming operation or the other.  If the USGS has discovered a "smoking gun" of any type, we have not been informed of it," Plowden wrote in an emailed statement.

In 2008, after holding a town hall meeting on the contamination in McBee, the agency handed out 22 faucet filters to the homes they found with contamination at the time. Plowden said the filter was an option for private well owners. The other option would be for the well owner to join the public water utility because it's monitored quarterly by health inspectors and is cleaned and treated daily.

DHEC acknowledged in its 2008 public hearing that the filters may not provide 100 percent protection in filtering the chemicals from a private well's drinking water.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DBCP and EDB in the late 1970s after collecting evidence to show the chemicals could cause cancer in humans and sterility in men, "The Environmental Protection Agency is imposing a suspension on crop application and other users of this pesticide and the Food and Drug Administration is launching a food monitoring program to determine if the general public is consuming unsafe amounts of this pesticide," OSHA Deputy Secretary Basil Whiting told reporters during a Sept. 8, 1977 press conference.

The chemicals were used extensively up until the EPA ban in 1977 by farmers; namely peach farmers across the country, according to the EPA. The chemicals were also used by manufacturing companies throughout the country.

DHEC records show the filters may not completely clean the chemicals form private well water, according to a 2008 presentation the agency made in a McBee public hearing. Of the filter's likelihood to clean the private well water DHEC's presentation reads, "…most likely clean."


Nearly 40 years after the ban, McBee's private water supplies are wrought with the chemicals.

"This is a map of the wells that were being tested. This was my well right here; being red, you know it was greater," Darrian Sullivan said as he held the 2007 DHEC well investigation map. The agency marked the wells with EDB with red dots. Sullivan's well also contained DBCP contamination.

Sullivan spent $2,000 to install his well when he moved into his Union Church Road home in McBee. That was 18 years ago. His family still depends on it for cooking, drinking, showers and for his farming business.

DHEC told him in 2008, they found the banned cancer-causing chemicals in his well, but said DHEC told him it wasn't a big deal, "It was kind of like throwing a grain of salt in a lake. It really wasn't enough to worry about and that's kind of the last we heard about it."

Sullivan's not alone in wondering what the state's lone environmental regulatory agency has done since 2007 to investigate what caused the pollution and who is responsible, "Why have you gone five years that you've tested all this? You've looked at all this and why haven't you said anything," Scotty McAteer asked when we interviewed him at his McBee home last week.

McAteer said DHEC tested his well years ago, but he's never gotten the results from the agency. "This is the filter that we've installed on our pump and debris and sediments come through here and it filters it out," McAteer said as he showed how his filtering system worked. McAteer's taken the steps he can to protect his family from drinking the chemicals, but what he's got won't get the job done, "Chemicals will go through it. It's not a filter for anything like that."

McAteer, like Darrian Sullivan are left to wonder what damage the chemicals may be doing to their families.

"You can see that these are all the places you've got contamination. They shut down one of the wells because it's so, so high," Amy Armstrong said as she looked over the evidence we collected during our investigation. Armstrong heads the South Carolina Environmental Law Project; a law firm that fights pollution cases across the state.

Given Armstrong's expertise in winning dozens of pollution cases across the state, we went to her to find out if there are any risks in drinking the chemicals for people on private wells in Chesterfield County, "The whole idea behind having limits like this is to protect public health," Armstrong said, "I was surprised to see such high levels and I hope that people are going into this fully aware of the risks because it's something that is—is a threat to their health."

Now, five years after telling him his well was polluted, Darrian Sullivan believes DHEC's dropped the ball, "It certainly seems like it because—I haven't forgotten about it. I think about it quite often and I've actually inquired about it, but just not sure where to go with it or who to get to help."

Scotty McAteer's hoping he'll have something safe and clean to leave behind, "We've worked so hard to create what we've had here, so we want to be able to give it to our kids and our kids give it to our grandkids one day and we don't want all this chemicals and things like that to be done. We want our kids to enjoy what we worked so hard to create."


Alligator Rural Water and Sewer filed a $450 million lawsuit last month in Chesterfield County against two of the county's largest employers as the source of the pollution around McBee. The suit alleges McLeod Farms and Mar Mac Wire are responsible for the chemical contamination that keeps showing up in the utility's water supplies, as well as private wells across the county.

When state health regulators started hitting Alligator Water over and over again with the threats of fines and shut downs, the utility knew something was going on. DHEC found the chemicals inside the utility's water supply from January 2005 to December 2008. Alligator Water started investigating the source of the contamination and called in the U.S. Geological Survey and hired an attorney.

"They got above the levels that DHEC allows and so, we had to start paying for filtering out those chemicals," Alligator Water attorney Billy Spencer said. DHEC forced Alligator Water to install carbon filters on several of its wells around the county. The filtering systems cost the utility company more than $15 million. The costs of the systems have been passed on to water customers and have caused Alligator Water customer's water bills to rise by 50 percent in the past couple of years.

"We've had to borrow money from the USDA to put some of these projects in that were designed to filter these chemicals out and at a great cost. So, we have to pay those loans back," Spencer said.

The utility company's also borrowed around $700,000 to have the USGS open an investigation in Chesterfield County. The federal agency is working to figure out how long the chemicals have been in the water supply, where the contamination's coming from and an estimation of how long it may take the chemicals to leave the aquifer.

DHEC's Plowden said the USGS would be responsible for tracking down the contamination's sources and the people responsible for it. However, USGS hydrologist Bruce Campbell who is heading the Chesterfield County project told WIS that DHEC was the "regulatory agency" and would be responsible for any enforcement efforts dealing with the source of the contamination.

The 2007 DHEC well investigation map shows the highest contamination levels in the heart of McLeod Farms; one of the state's largest peach farms. The farm uses many of the wells identified on the map to irrigate the peach trees and fruits that surround them.

Of the farm's 18 wells, DHEC found 12 with traces or excessive chemical contamination. The lawsuit accuses McLeod Farms of poisoning the Chesterfield County water supply.

After multiple attempts to reach McLeod Farm's president Kemp McLeod during our investigation, we went to McLeod Farms to speak with him. McLeod drove up to our camera, which was set up on the public right-of-way outside his farm's Highway 1 headquarters, "I want to talk to you about this lawsuit involving you and Alligator," Barr said. "I have no comment," McLeod replied, "My lawyer says I have no comment."

A DHEC aerial map shows a possible dump site on the McLeod Farm. It's located right behind the farm's migrant camp near the Highway 145 and Old Wire Road intersection. The map has a spot marked "dump site?" and sits feet away from the most contaminated drinking well that DHEC tested.

DHEC's 2007 map shows the migrant camp well's contamination was nearly 200-times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's limit for contaminants. A follow up test last year showed the contamination doubled--to 400 times above the EPA limit.

It's the same story around Mcleod Farm's roadside stand on Highway 151. DHEC's records show the agency tested three wells in the produce fields here; all three, according to the map came back with unsafe levels of chemical contamination.

The lawsuit also accuses Mar Mac Wire of polluting the water supply with some of the chemicals uncovered in the DHEC investigation. While shooting video outside the plant last week Mar Mac Wire president Andy Johnson walked out to talk with us. Johnson offered no explanation on the lawsuit, "I don't think we're going to be able to help you," Johnson said, "We'd really like for you to leave and not be filming," the president said. A call to the wire plant's chief executive officer John Martin, III yielded a "No comment."

SC Environmental Law Project Director Amy Armstrong said the chemical contamination is more serious than DHEC led people to believe in its 2008 public hearing, "It's a concern because we have limits for a reason and when they exceed limits, then that is the red flag that hey, we need to look at this," Armstrong said.

Armstrong's Georgetown law firm's won dozens of pollution cases against accused polluters across the state. She said the levels showing up in public and private wells around McBee pose a threat to anyone using well water and have for some time, "From the evidence, it's been about 30 years that they've been in the environment and they still are there today. They're persistent, they don't just go away and that's a cause for concern."

The $450 million suit would go toward paying off federal loans Alligator Water used for the upgrades the water company had to make by installing the filters and constructing a two-million gallon holding tank at its Highway 151 location, according to the utility's attorney.

The USGS plans to finish its report sometime in early 2013. That report could tell where the contamination came from, how long it's been in the ground and how long it could take to get rid of it. USGS records show it could take hundreds of years for the contaminants to leave the Chesterfield County aquifer.

Copyright 2012 WIS. All rights reserved.