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Mowing Lawns In White Suits, Gas Masks As Davidson Asbestos Cleanup Gets Underway

There was a strange sight in Davidson a few weeks ago – workers in white suits mowing lawns. It’s part of a $3 million asbestos cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at about 20 homes and other properties around an old mill.

Tim Mascara lives across the street from a grassy hillside that covers a decades-old asbestos dump behind the mill – now known as the Metrolina Warehouse. His yard is contaminated, too. So the EPA has hired workers to mow the lawn until the asbestos can be removed.

Tim Mascara
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Tim Mascara

A few weeks ago, they came for the first time - in protective gear.

“It was humorous, because you see guys in full white suits and gas masks on, respirators on, pushing lawn mowers across the yard,” Mascara said. “Then they caught all the clippings and put 'em on a truck and hauled 'em off and tested 'em.”

Mascara's house is one of about 20 properties where EPA tests last fall found asbestos. It came from the old Carolina Asbestos factory, which operated nearby from 1930 to 1960. Back then, neighbors had it delivered to cover driveways or level their yards - in an era before the dangers of asbestos became known.

Some neighbors have always worried about the asbestos and its risks. Mascara says the white-suited workers have stirred up old fears.

“I think that image captures their emotion in the whole thing, that they're kind of scared, they're a little timid,” Mascara said.

But, he added, “I'm not really scared.”  

That's because tests on the grass clippings and air quality after the first round of mowing in the neighborhood all came back with no sign of airborne asbestos - which can cause cancer and other deadly lung diseases. So yard workers no longer need protection at any of the homes.  

John Armstrong lives a block away, on the other side of the old mill, and his yard has asbestos, too. He supports the EPA and the cleanup, but says some neighbors still blame local officials for not doing more to help them - until now.

“They're still mad and angry about the years of not paying attention. Then all this growth coming in, digging up the ground that they knew that was infested with asbestos,” Armstrong said.

That anger flared up during a meeting two weeks ago at Gethsemane Baptist Church, in Davidson's largely African-American west side neighborhood, where Town Manager Jamie Justice faced questions and interruptions.

Justice reminded the residents that while the asbestos may have been ignored in the past, several agencies - the EPA, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the state Health Department - are now working on it.  

The EPA's Superfund program is paying the $3 million cost of the testing and cleanup. This project is safe from budget cuts by the Trump administration, even though future funding for the agency is up in the air. 

EPA on-scene coordinator Jordan Garrard spoke at a neighborhood meeting two weeks ago.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
EPA on-scene coordinator Jordan Garrard spoke at a neighborhood meeting two weeks ago.

Jordan Garrard is leading the EPA team in Davidson. He said officials need to listen, but also stay focused on the cleanup.

“I'm here to clean up these yards, eliminate any exposure pathways,” Garrard said after that Davidson meeting. “I unfortunately can't fix what's happened in the past. I'm only here to help things moving forward at that point. And that's kind of what I continuously stress.”

The cleanup is scheduled to begin the second week of May. Contractors for the EPA will start at the historically black Davidson Presbyterian Church, next to the old mill, then move on to nearby houses.

They'll dig up the top foot or so of soil, lay down a plastic barrier, then fill yards with new soil.

During the work, residents will have to move out for a few days - into hotel rooms provided by the EPA. John Armstrong liked the sound of that.  

“I can stand that … Long as it's nice and I can kick my feet off and don't have to clean up behind myself,” he joked.

All the attention to asbestos in Davidson began last fall when a Charlotte developer held a public meeting about a proposed apartment complex on the mill site. There's asbestos there, too. A spokesman said this week the project remains on hold while they negotiate with state officials over how to clean up the mill, too.  

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.