WRAL Investigates

Local towns, companies could have to pay for PCB cleanup

Posted December 23, 2008
Updated March 9, 2009

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— Local companies and municipalities could have to pay for the cleanup of cancer-causing chemicals that leaked from a transformer company and its products, contaminating soil and waterways near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Several companies and municipalities are challenging a federal law that holds them accountable for the cost of cleanup, saying they were not responsible for the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that formerly was used as a coolant in electrical transformers. The PCBs leaked from the Ward Transformers Sales & Services site at 6852 Mt. Herman Road.

Ward transformers Local companies could have to bail out Ward

"I thought, 'How could we be responsible for something we had nothing to do with?'" Louisburg Mayor Karl Pernell said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected high levels of PCBs in soil on several acres of land near the airport in the 1970s. Since then, the chemical has leached into Lake Crabtree and moved downstream.

The EPA plans to clean up an estimated 100 tons of the toxic soil, but Raleigh-based Ward, which filed for bankruptcy, does not have the resources to pay for it.

That puts the responsibility on Ward's four largest customers, including Progress Energy, who are now asking for financial assistance from 125 of Ward's smaller customers – including Louisburg, Peace College and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The estimated cost of the cleanup is more than $60 million.

Ward maintained the town's transformers from the 1960s to the 1990s.

"We don't feel like we are obligated to do what they are asking us to do, but we're going to have to defend ourselves the best we know how."

Ward's former Wake County location is now a Superfund site, a toxic-waste site designated for cleanup under the U.S.'s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980. That means the government will do the cleanup and go to court to collect the costs from anyone associated with the PCBs, a legal precept known as joint and several liability.

"It's very frustrating. You just don't know where your liability ends and begins," Louisburg Town Administrator Mark Warren said.

Louisburg recently hired an attorney to help in the fight, as did several of the other smaller customers.

It's the latest chapter in a toxic cleanup that started on the side of the road in the 1970s and continues downstream decades later.

Thirty years ago, Warren County residents protested when PCB-contaminated soil was dumped in a local landfill. Ward had used PCBs in its transformers, and workers with the Raleigh-based company sprayed PCB-laced oil along hundreds of miles of state roads as a way to dispose of it.

The soil was eventually dug up and dumped in Warren County, where officials said it could be sequestered. Local protests claiming environmental racism eventually prompted the state to spend $18 million to clean the landfill.

Because PCBs are usually trapped in sediment at the bottom of streams and lakes, scientists don't believe contact exposure or drinking the water pose major health risks. The primary concern is eating fish that have ingested PCBs while feeding.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • CnB Cat Dec 26, 2008

    He did go to jail as did his son who is among the living. You know he had to have made money during these times. Why can't he pay for it? I do think that WRAL should do a follow up story on the ward family today. Where are they now? Out spending money like its going out of style. Thats not fair!

  • XLAW Dec 24, 2008

    For the back story, go to Wikipedia "Warren County PCB Landfill." Buck Ward did go to jail for a short time. I believe I remember the contractors hired by Ward to dispose of the PCBs went to jail for a longer time. It's hard to believe that 26 years after the fact there are these consequences to innocent parties who contracted with what appeared to be a responsible business at the time.

  • whatelseisnew Dec 24, 2008

    Just let it leech out into the lake and go on down the waterway. Eventually it will be all cleaned out.

  • NCODDDOOD Dec 24, 2008

    These companies should be held responsible for the damage that their transformers caused. They knowingly gave these old PCB laden transformers to Ward for holding/treatment/disposal even with their sketchy environmental past.

    That is like giving a gun to a criminal who has been convicted of shooting at people and "expecting" him to not shoot at more people when you give him another gun. The person who gave the gun to the criminal would likely be charged with aiding and abetting, I personally don't see a big difference in these two situations.

    People or companies that generate hazardous materials are responsible for the proper disposal or treatment of these wastes. If they do not do the "Due Diligence" on the companies that they hire to take their hazardous waste, they (the generators) are completely to blame.

    There is often a price to pay when you find the lowest bidder to take a job, sometimes you just don't pay the price until years later.

  • notpc567 Dec 24, 2008

    1970's near the airport... what about the major road construction in the late 90's...could that have spread the stuff around and further exposed travelers and airport workers in and around the site.

    Why has it taken so to decide who is going to clean this mess up... it needs to be cleaned up NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Nicole and dime if you ask me

  • mustysteer Dec 23, 2008

    One of the roadways that Ward sprayed PCBs on was Manchester Road. This road runs from the inhabited section of Fort Bragg past several drop zones on over to Southern Pines. This is obviously Federal land. Why didn't the US Government via the USArmy go after Ward then? Why didn't heads roll? I remember seeing the damage back in 1978, which was also along NC 87 from near Olivia toward Sanford. I remember the Danger signs along Manchester Road on Ft Bragg.
    Don't go after municipalities and companies that were/are doing business with Ward unless they knew/know what Ward was/is doing. Take Ward for all its worth. Not enough money there? Go after the management and employees - and their finances - that knowingly took place in these criminal activities. Get the crooks!

  • djofraleigh Dec 23, 2008

    smitty - you're right...but still comment on a good story.

    Why didn't the people at Ward company go to jail, and I bet that family is still living rich. I'd like to see the story. When they deliberately poured the oil down the shoulders of 64 highway, I lost all sympathy or want of understanding their criminal minds. WRAL - do a story on the Ward family today. Let's see how crime DOESN'T PAY, if it is true.

  • nerdlywehunt Dec 23, 2008

    They seem to still be in business with a website doing the same thing they were doing. WRAL how about an investigation of how the owners have fared over the years. Maybe a picture of the mansion the family lives in and the constant poor mouthing they have given to the state over the years......another example of take the money and let someone else clean up your mess.

  • smitty Dec 23, 2008

    " Local companies and municipalities who could have to pay for the cleanup of cancer-causing chemicals that leaked from a transformer site, leaked from transformers and contaminated soil and waterways near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

    This is not a proper sentence.