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Old factory complexes across North Carolina are finding new lives. But in downtown Davidson, developers for years have tried to redevelop an aging cotton mill - without success. That's because cancer-causing asbestos is buried on the site. Between the cost of cleanup and the risk of stirring up asbestos, nobody has been willing to take on the job.

Davidson's Legacy Of Asbestos Contamination And Distrust

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Davidson College Archives
An aerial photo of the Linden Mill, later the Carolina Asbestos Company, with smokestack, in downtown Davidson. Main Street and Davidson College Presbyterian Church are at the bottom. The photo is probably from the 1950s or 1960s.

Here's a familiar story in the Charlotte region: An old brick textile mill is turned into something hip — a brewery, apartments or a food hall. It happens all the time, but attempts to redevelop a 130-year-old cotton mill in downtown Davidson have failed. The problem is cancer-causing asbestos. It's buried on the site, and it's been an environmental hazard to the historically Black neighborhood that surrounds the mill.

In some ways, the failed redevelopments have protected residents who fear being priced out of their homes if the mill is redeveloped. Today, WFAE begins a three-part series that examines these hazards and fears as another developer tries to find a new use for the mill. Environmental reporter David Boraks kicks off the series with a story on how asbestos became such a problem in Davidson.

The Linden Mill is a one-story brick complex next to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in downtown Davidson — tracks that have long divided the Black and white sides of town. It was built as a cotton mill in 1891, one of two in town, and became a major employer — for white folks, anyway.

David Boraks
Jan Blodgett

That changed in 1930, when Carolina Asbestos Company moved in. They hired Black workers as well as white ones, said historian and former Davidson College archivist Jan Blodgett.

"Prior to this, the two mills that had existed ... only hired a few African Americans to be maintenance workers," Blodgett said. "You could work at (Davidson) College and be a maintenance worker. The asbestos mill started offering actual jobs, not just maintenance jobs. So, for the African American community, this was actually a bit of a boon."

Davidson resident Frank Jordan was 19 years old in 1966 when he landed a job at the asbestos factory. But that economic opportunity came with health risks.

David Boraks
Frank Jordan

"It was so dusty in there that you couldn't see each other 10 foot apart. That's how much dust they had going on in there. … But at that time, I didn't know that (was) poison to your system," said Jordan, now a successful business owner in Davidson.

Jordan remembers asbestos permeating the town.

"I worked on first shift in there, from 7 to 3:30. And when you leave out in the afternoon, it looked like snow outside," he said. "Even in the churchyard, it was covered."

He means Davidson Presbyterian Church. It was one of dozens of properties cleaned up by the EPA in 2017.

Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization
Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization travels the country lobbying for new laws and educating people about the dangers of asbestos.

Dangers Of Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals valued for their fireproof qualities. But people have long known that breathing its tiny fibers can lead to health problems like lung cancer and asbestosis. Linda Reinstein is president and co-founder of the California-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

"There is no safe level of asbestos exposure," Reinstein said. "So when you breathe these nearly invisible fibers, you can never ... as you exhale your breath, you don't exhale these fibers. They're short, spindly, often sharp fibers that embed themselves into the area of the lining around the lung."

Carolina Asbestos made insulating fabric, colorful building shingles, and automotive brake linings. Even in the factory's early years, asbestos was making people sick. In 1936, former employees sued the company after being diagnosed with asbestosis. But they lost in court, Blodgett said.

"The case is going to come down in the end to the court saying that because the mill couldn't have known at the time they were injuring their workers, they weren't liable," Blodgett said.

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Tony Rich
Carolina Asbestos shingle samples.

Many longtime residents of Davidson's historically Black West Side neighborhood have lost family members or friends to what they believe were asbestos-related illnesses. Former Town Board member Garfield Carr said both his father and grandfather died of cancer after working at the mill. There were no autopsies or rulings certifying that asbestos was the cause.

David Boraks
Garfield Carr

"I wish I had a more definitive answer, but you know, unfortunately, I don't," Carr said. "But given the time that they both work there and the conditions that they worked under, I would almost say it had (to be) a contributing factor."

Another former Carolina Asbestos worker, Willie Brandon, died of lung cancer in 1984 at just 64 years old. His son, Marvin Brandon, said when Willie died, his death certificate listed asbestos as the cause.

"It wasn't mesothelioma, the way they do it now. I think it said 'asbestos-cide' or asbestos whatever," he said.

A Problem For The West Side

Ninety years after the asbestos mill first opened, asbestos is still all over the West Side, and environmental contamination remains a risk. Along the street behind the mill, there's a block-long, 25-foot-high mountain of buried asbestos facing the neighborhood. Some residents call it "Asbestos Hill" or "Mystery Hill."

Former Davidson Mayor John Woods remembers riding his bike there in the 1950s, when it was just a shallow pond filling up with waste asbestos. He and his friends used to make bets on what color it would be.

David Boraks
John Woods

"It could be 'asbestos white,' or purple, and that green color," Woods said. "And it was just a local joke to us kids, because we didn't understand, of course, the implications of that."

By the late 1960s, Carolina Asbestos had changed owners. Within a few years, the mill shut down, as new health and environmental regulations came into force. It became a warehouse and distribution center. In 1976, Charlottean Robert Kenyon bought it as a retirement investment. He died in 2004, but his daughter, Cynthia Chirot of Seattle, said he had no idea there was asbestos there.

"There was no disclosure of the environmental condition in the paperwork. ... I don't think he knew about it," Chirot said.

It wasn’t until complaints from neighbors about eight years later that Kenyon realized asbestos was left behind, Chirot said.

In 1984, state environmental officials ordered Kenyon to re-cover the mound of asbestos and monitor it regularly, which he did. When he died 17 years ago, Chirot and her two siblings inherited the mill. They've been looking for a buyer ever since.

It's prime real estate — just a block from restaurants and shops on Davidson's thriving Main Street.

But it's an environmental nightmare.

David Boraks
December 2016: Vegetation formerly covered the mound of asbestos behind the old Carolina Asbestos factory, until a burrowing groundhog broke the cap. The hill was cleared and re-capped in 2017.

Asbestos And Concerns Resurface

In 2016, a groundhog burrowed into the mound and released asbestos. And asbestos also was found running down the street next to the mill.

Visual history of construction on the Linden Mill site.JPG
Fearnbach History Services
Aerial map shows how the mill site developed during the 20th century.

Contractors installed a new cover of soil, matting and grass. But even that is temporary. Chirot hopes that eventually a developer will buy the property and clean up the site.

"Everyone wants a great project on this site, and a permanent solution to the environmental problem that is, you know, historic here," Chirot said. "And as owners, we've tried to manage this issue diligently ever since we became aware of it."

But the owners don't want to clean it up themselves. And many people in the West Side neighborhood don't want to see the site disturbed.

That's what Evelyn Carr, the mother of Garfield Carr, told state and local officials during a 2019 community meeting about the latest development plan.

"I'm hoping that you don't do it, because we have lost a lot of people," she said. "I lost my daddy, I lost my husband from asbestos. If y'all go in there now and tear this asbestos up … I have lived in that asbestos for 90 years. I am 90 years old. And I don't care what you do to it, you can't protect that asbestos."

That sentiment is no surprise to Woods. He heard it often as mayor — and he understands.

"This site is an example of the community relations that exist here in Davidson, the lingering long-standing mistrust, in some cases, of intentions," Woods said.

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David Boraks
The former Linden Mill/Carolina Asbestos factory in downtown Davidson is now called Metrolina Warehouse.

Neighborhood Worries

Adding to that mistrust are two other concerns: Worries that redevelopment will speed gentrification of the neighborhood, and the discovery in 2017 that many yards and driveways on the West Side are also contaminated with waste asbestos that once floated there or was brought from the plant as fill.

Longtime Davidson residents all have stories about using waste asbestos.

"It was kind of one of those unspoken things that it was OK to go on (the factory) site and just shovel up those fragments — and you can imagine the dust that occurred from that — and probably was carried all over town, literally," Woods said.

Woods remembers that it wasn't just people on the West Side who used the stuff — it was all over town. Many other Davidson natives have shared their memories recently of collecting and even paying for asbestos to use in their yards.

NEXT: Coming up in Part 2 on Tuesday, we'll look at how the EPA has spent millions of dollars cleaning up those yards, and how even street and utility work in the neighborhood brings out workers in white suits. Then Wednesday in Part 3, we'll look at how asbestos — and community tension — have stifled repeated efforts to redevelop the old mill.

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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.