The ditch that runs behind Domonic Tillman’s childhood home kept him busy on most summer days.
As a youngster, Tillman and his buddies played in the water, caught snakes and, sometimes, released cheap goldfish they had bought, just to see the little creatures swim in the shallow ditch. It was a great time for a child growing up in this small, out-of-the way town near the Great Pee Dee River.
But as he grew older, Tillman developed an acne-like rash that never went away. Today, at age 31, his back is covered in the bumpy rash that’s more often associated with teenagers.
Tillman thinks he knows why he has the rash: The ditch water he played in as a child was contaminated with industrial toxins that drained from a cloth manufacturing plant nearby.
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His concerns about the plant are among increasing worries in Cheraw over what many say was a hidden danger in their midst. Unknown to many residents, Burlington Industries released cancer-causing PCBs as it produced fabric that was sold worldwide, records show.
Only in 2016, about 50 years after wastewater first oozed off the Burlington site, were residents of Cheraw told about the contamination many had been exposed to.
Today, many residents are angry the company polluted their community. They also are upset that city, state and federal officials either didn’t know about the contamination or didn’t push to clean it up long ago.
The floods that swept through Cheraw two weeks ago only reignited questions about the effects of PCB-pollution in Cheraw. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in town, working on an emergency cleanup of houses polluted by PCBs from flooding related to Hurricane Florence.
The biggest concerns in Cheraw center on whether PCB contamination made people sick through the years and what the stigma of contamination will do to property values.
Residents interviewed by The State said many children played in the ditch, as well as a creek that ran through a city park several miles below the plant. The creek’s mud is polluted with PCBs. Last week, that creek ran red and purple with dye from an as-yet-unknown source.
Levels of PCBs far higher than the federal safety standard — some, thousands of times above it — have been found in the ditch, yards and creeks below the former Burlington factory. The city’s Huckleberry Park has been closed because of PCB contamination.
“We never knew nothing about the pollution,’’ Tillman said. “They would just get rid of their stuff, throw it behind our houses. When I first heard about this, I was (upset). But, then again, that’s life.’’
Documents reviewed by The State show contamination drained off the Burlington site before it was sold to Highland Industries in 1988. Records show a smattering of pollution complaints to state regulators in 1970 and questionable disposal practices in 1972.
Three years ago, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control began investigating after it was alerted about possible contamination by a concerned resident. It verified extensive contamination, prompting the department to contact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about an emergency cleanup of the most toxic areas.
Two years ago, the EPA held a community meeting to discuss its work and its findings. This year, the EPA declared a 3.2 mile-long area of Cheraw, below the Burlington plant, to be a Superfund site. Such sites — there are about 25 others in South Carolina — get special federal attention because they are among the most polluted in the country and difficult to clean up.
Highland Industries, which denies any liability, is paying for some of the cleanup work to help the community. It was not known how much taxpayers, ultimately, may spend on the cleanup project through the Superfund program. Efforts to reach a spokesperson for Burlington were unsuccessful.
The Burlington Industries plant was a mainstay of Cheraw’s economy for decades, a popular business that employed hundreds of people in a proud, poor town in need of jobs. The plant opened in 1961, making fabrics, fiberglass and, later, Kevlar, the tough material used in bulletproof vests.
“They were a big player in town,’’ said Howard Duvall, a Columbia City councilman who was Cheraw’s mayor in the mid-1980s.
Duvall, who said he didn’t hear about the pollution until recently, said town leaders thought so highly of Burlington that they targeted it for annexation. He led successful efforts to bring the Burlington plant into the city limits, a move that has boosted Cheraw’s tax base.
But the company had a side that few knew about.
Records show Burlington released PCBs into the ditch that ran from the plant, past Tillman’s house and into the heart of what would become some of Cheraw’s most popular neighborhoods. Today, 720 people live within a half-mile of plant property and its old waste lagoons, according to the EPA.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the PCBs were dumped. But the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says the plant released waste into the ditch between 1961 and 1972.
In 1970, a top state health official received “several complaints .... concerning the discharge of a waste product into an open ditch,’’ according to a 2016 report by the EPA. The official “confirmed by direct observation that ‘the plant is indeed discharging a green fluid ... into an open ditch at the rear of a housing development.’ ’’
The letter doesn’t say which housing development was affected, but a ditch runs through the neighborhood where Tillman grew up. The tainted ditch connects with creeks that run past the now closed city park and into the Great Pee Dee River.
In 1972, more concerns were noted.
State health regulators found potential problems that could allow leaks from waste ponds on the Burlington property.
Inspectors discovered the plant’s settling ponds didn’t have banks around them to hold waste material inside. Also, the ponds did not connect with each other, meaning waste would flow into an adjacent field if the ponds ever became too full, according to a recent EPA report.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which didn’t exist until 1973, says it learned only three years ago that pollution had escaped the site.
That is when a neighbor asked whether a field in his community once had contained old sludge ponds that he had heard rumors about. The agency then tested the field, discovering high levels of PCBs in the soil and in the neighbor’s yard.
Cheraw Mayor Andy Ingram said PCBs still were legal and widely used in the 1960s and 1970s. The government banned production of PCBs in 1979 after learning they are hazardous to human health.
But Ingram said if state and federal regulators knew about any complaints, they should have done more to investigate and inform the town.
“If anybody is at fault, in my opinion, it’s the EPA and DHEC,’’ Ingram said.
Gary Poliakoff, a veteran environmental lawyer retained by a Cheraw resident, said the Department of Health and Environmental Control has a history of timid regulation in a state where big business is king.
“Our state health agency is vastly more concerned about the well-being of corporations, even polluting corporations, versus the interests of homeowners and citizens adversely affected by pollution,” said Poliakoff.
George Martin, a 73-year-old Cheraw resident, said the stigma of pollution is making it hard for him to sell his home, near a PCB-polluted creek targeted for cleanup by the EPA.
“We put our house on the market two months before they found PCBs, and we had one person look at it then,’’ Martin said. “We’ve never had another person look at it.’’
Martin, whose wife has cancer, said he is angry with the city of Cheraw, and state and federal environmental regulators. He says they knew, or should have known, about the pollution.
“I’ve got all my money invested in this house,’’ he said.
‘Are we concerned? Yes’
Melvin and Karen Wilkerson also are upset.
The retired school teachers bought a lot near the former Burlington plant more than 12 years ago so they could build what Karen Wilkerson called their “dream home.’’
But what the Wilkersons didn’t know haunts them every day.
The Wilkersons said developers and real estate agents didn’t tell them that the one-acre lot they purchased was part of the former Burlington industrial property. A local developer, who since has died, had bought some of the Burlington land and subdivided it into lots.
They also did not know the field next door once was a dump for Burlington’s waste sludge or that the ditch behind their house originated at the plant.
When the EPA and DHEC tested the land about two years ago, the Wilkersons discovered the terrible truth. EPA soil tests revealed their land was contaminated with PCBs.
Today, decades after the sludge waste area closed, green sludge chunks litter the land between their property and the old disposal site.
Earlier this year, the EPA cleaned up the PCB pollution by digging up half the Wilkersons’ back yard and replacing contaminated soil with clean dirt. But mud in the ditch hasn’t been removed and remains a constant threat to contaminate their land again, the couple said.
Two weeks ago, the ditch filled to the brim during Hurricane Florence and water drained into their yard from the old sludge field next door.
“Are we concerned? Yes,’’ Melvin Wilkerson said. “Any property owner in this area should be concerned. It reflects on your property values. I have not found a person who told me they would want to buy a house with contamination. The citizens of Cheraw should be concerned because they have a very high level of contamination on property in the area.’’
Mayor Ingram, the real estate agent who brokered the land sale with the Wilkersons for the developer, said no one knew about pollution at Burlington at the time.
“I didn’t know it until it surfaced a few years ago,’’ Ingram said. “If we didn’t know about it, we didn’t have anything to disclose.’’
‘We have to live in it’
Cleveland State University professor Robert Simons, a national expert on contaminated land and real estate values, said owning property near a Superfund site can lower land values from 5 percent to 20 percent.
PCBs are a class of chemicals once used to cool electrical transformers and as a flame retardant by industries. They were highly effective, but later it was discovered they were toxic, said Larry Robertson, program director at the University of Iowa’s Superfund Research Center.
Although their production was banned nearly four decades ago, PCBs do not break down easily in the environment and can last for years in soil. Robertson said 80 percent of the nation’s Superfund sites have PCB contamination.
The material is toxic enough to cause cancer, skin irritation and a range of other health ailments if people are exposed over long periods of time. Chloracne, like the rash that covers Tillman’s back, is one of the most obvious signs of PCB exposure, researchers say.
That’s a particular concern in Cheraw.
For years, children played in creeks and ditches that later were found to have high levels of PCBs.
One of those waterways was Wilson Branch, which runs along the edge of Huckleberry Park, a 2- acre area once full of playground equipment.
Barbara Bullard-Mimms, who lives across from the former park, said she is particularly upset the city didn’t keep children out of the park after Cheraw learned about the contamination. Records show DHEC and the EPA voiced concerns about the city’s failure to keep children away from the contaminated land. .
“DHEC noted that steps taken by the city of Cheraw to close the park had been unsuccessful,’’ according to a Dec. 14, 2016, EPA study of the pollution. “DHEC documented evidence of children in the park, such as bare footprints and sand/mud that had been placed onto the park slide.’’
That is the kind of thing that bothers Domonic Tillman and his mother, Janet.
The Tillman;s moved into their small brick home on Pecan Drive 28 years ago.
Domonic Tillman said the rash that developed on his back always made himself self-conscious. When he would play pickup basketball games in which one side wore shirts and the others went shirtless, he always made sure to play on the shirts.
“I’m kind of used to it now,’’ he said. “But it’s something I’d rather not have.’’
In 2016, the Tillmans said they heard about PCB contamination in the community. The EPA and DHEC had discovered the pollution nearby and started testing residents’ yards. Janet Tillman’s home was found to have high levels of the toxin in the same spots where her children once played.
Janet Tillman said she feels betrayed by the industry that once employed so many people and by public officials, who weren’t diligent enough in investigating signs of pollution long ago.
“I’m disappointed and upset because of the fact they are just throwing us aside,’’ she said. “They don’t care about our health or our property or anything. And we have to live in it.’’