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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.

Asbestos At The Mill And In The Black Neighborhood Around It

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David Boraks
Ruby Houston, who lives across the street from the former Carolina Asbestos mill in Davidson, spoke at a community meeting in January 2020.

Asbestos contamination from an old factory in Davidson is not just an environmental concern on site. It's also a problem throughout the historically African American neighborhood nearby. So far, cleanups have cost the EPA at least $3 million. Today, in the second of our three-part series Asbestos Town, WFAE environmental reporter David Boraks looks at how Davidson is still dealing with the legacies of its asbestos-producing past, including long-simmering distrust from the Black community.

David Boraks
February 2017: Workers installed a new temporary cap on the mound of asbestos that neighbors call Asbestos Hill, or Mystery Hill.

An estimated 2,200 tons of asbestos are buried in a mound behind the five-acre former Carolina Asbestos Company in downtown Davidson. It's the leftover byproduct of the company that made shingles, automotive brake linings and other asbestos products from 1930 to about 1970.

While the factory was up and running, sometimes asbestos floated in the air into surrounding yards. Over the years, it also ran onto neighborhood streets and into a stream downhill from the factory. And some was moved around town intentionally — carried from the mill to fill in people's yards and driveways. Longtime resident Marvin Brandon knows that firsthand.

"They could go over and get the asbestos, put it in the trunk of the car, bring it home, spread it out on their driveways and crush it up, just break it up, or drive over it to break it up. Because I remember my dad doing it several times," Brandon said.

Asbestos also may have been used to help fill in what's now the town-owned Roosevelt Wilson Park, off Griffith Street. Sections of the park these days are surrounded by orange fencing and warning signs while the town awaits an EPA cleanup.

David Boraks
Marvin Brandon remembers his father putting asbestos on the driveway.

Asbestos contamination is also why workers in white suits and respirators have been seen lately on Sloan Street behind the mill. They're carefully removing contaminated dirt from trenches dug for a Charlotte Water main project. A Charlotte Water spokeswoman said they don't have an estimate of how much asbestos has been found.

Before the water main project started, Charlotte Water and its contractors had to develop an "asbestos work plan" with state and federal environmental officials. Officials say all future construction and development projects in the neighborhood around the mill will have to do the same.

Kids Covered In Asbestos

After the mill closed around 1970, Davidson's asbestos problem wasn't talked about much — until 1984.

One day, children played in the mill yard and went home covered in a "whitish material." Their mother complained to the health department, which sent a team to investigate and take soil samples. It "revealed that a portion of the property was an abandoned asbestos disposal site," according to a March 1984 letter to the property owner.

Soon, state environmental officials ordered the owner to cover the pile of asbestos and monitor it regularly.

Residents of Davidson's nearby West Side neighborhood continued to worry about asbestos. But permanently dealing with it wasn't on the agenda of anyone — not the owners, not the town, not state or federal environmental officials.

The 1984 incident reports were filed away, the mound of asbestos grew over with grass, shrubs and trees, and the old problem was buried again — until developers began eyeing the old factory in recent years.

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A 2021 map shows new yards and properties (orange) where the EPA plans to excavate and replace asbestos-contaminated soil. Pink areas were cleaned up in 2017.

It's In Our Yards, Too

It wasn't until asbestos was discovered again, in 2016, that town and environmental officials took the problem seriously. John Woods was mayor at the time.

"When we thought that the site was truly stabilized, and maybe restabilized, then there was a report of white substances flowing down the Eden Street slope and down onto Sloan Street. And that created yet a whole new level of concern," Woods said.

Those concerns spilled over at a public meeting in September 2016, where a developer was unveiling plans to tear down the mill and build an upscale apartment complex.

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Contractors for the EPA dug up a yard near the old Carolina Asbestos Company mill in Davidson in 2017. Contaminated soil was removed and clean soil was brought in to replace it at 32 properties that year. More will be done in 2021.

But residents didn't want to hear about the redevelopment. They wanted to talk about the leaking mound of asbestos. And they told officials something else: There was asbestos in their yards, too.

“It's buried asbestos. And I think it's probably more than in this general area. And I'm told it's buried underneath some homes, some businesses," resident Ruby Houston said in 2017.

Houston has lived across the street from the asbestos mound since 1955. She said after residents' concerns came up at developer's meeting, town officials seemed to react differently than in the past.

"I saw the concern on their faces," Houston said. "They acknowledged this is a problem, (that) this is not good."

The realization that asbestos might be all over the West Side, not just at the old mill, set off a scramble that Davidson hadn't seen before. Town Manager Jamie Justice was just a year into his job and unfamiliar with the problem.

"It was hard to get my arms around exactly what it was," Justice said. "And you heard the concerns and wasn't sure what was true, what was rumor. And so it became this kind of strange thing."

Environmental Officials Take Action

Investigators discovered that overgrown vegetation and a burrowing groundhog had loosened asbestos on "Asbestos Hill." The state was in charge of the old mill site and ordered a new cap. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency began taking soil samples at properties around the neighborhood.

But some residents were wary, and wouldn't allow the tests. Ken Rhame was the EPA's on-scene coordinator and spoke to WFAE at the time.

"There are a few residents that we've talked to that originally thought that we were there to try to take their property or claim that we were gonna condemn their property," Rhame said.

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Contractors for the EPA mowed the lawn at Davidson Presbyterian Church in April 2017. They wet the grass and wore protective suits because of concerns about asbestos contamination. (EPA photo)

Eventually, 93 parcels were tested and 32 had high enough concentrations of asbestos to warrant cleanups. So, during the spring and summer of 2017, workers in full protective gear were all over the West Side.

Tim Mascara's house across the street from the mill was one of the 32.

“It was humorous, because you see guys in full white suits and gas masks on, respirators on, pushing lawn mowers across the yard," Mascar said in 2017. "Then they caught all the clippings and put 'em on a truck and hauled 'em off and tested 'em.”

At private homes and the nearby Davidson Presbyterian Church, workers dug up a foot or two of soil, put down plastic sheeting, and covered it with fresh topsoil. Altogether, 6,200 tons of tainted soil were trucked to an EPA-approved landfill.

All that testing and removal cost the EPA's Superfund program $3 million.

Residents Remain Wary

But even as the cleanup continued, tensions remained high between neighbors and town officials. At one neighborhood meeting in April 2017, Justice, the town manager, faced angry residents.

"We're connecting the dots now with a process to go forward," he said. "Now we have the facts. And that's what this is about is finding out what the facts are …"

A resident in the audience interrupted. "Sir, you had facts before this. You had the facts before," the man said.

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David Boraks
Miguel Alvalle of the state Department of Environmental Quality addressed a community meeting about asbestos in January 2020 - one of many over the past four years.

"Well, to me now … I'm just telling you ..." Justice tried to continue.

"I'm not arguing with you," the resident said. "But again, you gotta listen to the people."

Justice acknowledged people's concerns, but reminded them that while the asbestos may have been ignored in the past, federal and state officials were here now working on it.

EPA Knew There Was More

But nearly four years later, Davidson's asbestos troubles aren't over. A year ago, soil tests found asbestos at Roosevelt Wilson Park, a couple of blocks away from the plant. And at yet another community meeting around the same time, residents insisted that previous testing hadn't found all the asbestos in people's yards.

So last summer and fall, the EPA did another round of sampling, with an expanded testing area. This time, some residents who refused tests in 2017 gave permission.

Angela Miller is a community involvement coordinator for the EPA.

"We knew that when we were out here in 2017, that we were not going to get every little piece of asbestos, we knew that," Miller said. "And when we expanded our sampling, we have now discovered that that was, in fact, the truth."

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David Boraks
The yard of this home on Mock Road on Davidson has buried asbestos, based on recent tests. The EPA has put down plastic sheeting and gravel temporarily to prevent the asbestos from getting airborne. It's one of 11 properties where soil will be dug up an replaced in early 2021.

Miller said it's not clear yet what this new cleanup will cost. The EPA will be back over the next few weeks to remove and replace soil at 11 more properties found to have high levels of asbestos. Miller says the park will probably be excavated first.

The EPA will give more details in a virtual public meeting Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 6 p.m.

Even with more cleanups, residents have another big concern: Once asbestos is mostly gone, they worry it will speed gentrification of Davidson's West Side.

Many residents told WFAE that investors are already pestering neighbors to sell their homes. Marvin Brandon is one of them.

"I actually get letters, I get calls, I get texts," Brandon said. "Almost every other day somebody wants to buy my property and I have not given anybody my telephone number, or any indication that I want to sell my property at all. But I get this and it just, it kind of angers me."

NEXT: Worries about gentrification are an undercurrent in discussions about what happens to the old mill. As yet another developer tries to put together a project, residents remain wary about both asbestos — and the future of their neighborhood. We'll have that Wednesday in Part 3 of Asbestos Town.

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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.