'Asbestos Town' 1-Hour Special: A Look At How Contamination Has Affected Davidson Community, Development
In this hourlong special, we'll hear stories about asbestos at an old, brick textile mill in Davidson, North Carolina, and how redevelopment might solve the problem. We'll learn how asbestos got into both the historically Black neighborhood nearby and elsewhere in town — and how it's being cleaned up. And we'll talk to residents worried about how fixing one problem might contribute to another — gentrification.
Catch up on WFAE's full "Asbestos Town" series here.
Rather read than listen to the audio? Read the transcript.
Here's a familiar story in our region. An old brick textile mill is turned into something hip — maybe a brewery, apartments or a food hall. But attempts to redevelop a 130-year-old cotton mill in downtown Davidson have failed repeatedly over the past 10 years or so.
The problem is cancer-causing asbestos. It's long been an environmental hazard not just at the old factory but in the historically Black neighborhood around it. Those failed projects may also have protected neighbors who fear being priced out of their homes if the mill someday is redeveloped.
Former Mayor John Woods says asbestos also has contributed to tensions between neighborhood residents and Town Hall.
John Woods: This site is an example of the community relations that exist here in Davidson, the lingering long-standing mistrust, in some cases, of intentions.
Over the next hour, we'll hear stories about asbestos at the old mill and how redevelopment might solve the problem. We'll learn how asbestos got into both the neighborhood nearby and elsewhere in town, and how it's being cleaned up. And we'll talk to residents worried about how fixing one problem might contribute to another - gentrification.
I'm David Boraks, and this is "Asbestos Town."
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. When it was built as a cotton mill in 1891, the first of two in town, it became a major employer - for white folks, anyway, says historian Jan Blodgett.
Jan Blodgett: They gave jobs to particularly white farmers. When the boll weevil issue in farming went down in the 1890s, early 1900s, that became the place.
Blodgett is the former archivist at Davidson College, and co-author of the Davidson history "One Town, Many Voices." She says hiring practices changed in the 1930s when Carolina Asbestos Co. took over the old cotton mill. Black workers were given an opportunity.
Blodgett: We're entering the Depression. There's a new mill opening. They actually hire more African American workers. Prior to this … if you're African American, they only hired a few African Americans to be maintenance workers. You can work at the college and be a maintenance worker. The asbestos mills started offering actual jobs, not just maintenance jobs. So for the African American community, this was actually a bit of a boon.
Carolina Asbestos made insulating fabric, colorful building shingles, and automotive brake linings, among other things. Frank Jordan was 19 years old in 1966 when he got hired.
Frank Jordan: Well, I first started being a supplier to the machine... And we go out into the stockroom, bring the stuff into the machinery, and you feed the hoppers back down the back. But I worked myself up to be a lead man.
It was a good job that Jordan enjoyed, but it came with health risks he says workers didn't really understand.
Jordan: And when I first started, 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.
David Boraks: Did you guys know what the dust was?
Jordan: Oh, yeah. Well, we knew. But at that time, I didn't know that it was poison to your system.
Jordan: 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. Even in the churchyard, it was covered. That stuff come all the way up town on the streets up there. But when you walk out of there in the afternoon, the ground was just plumb covered.
It took decades for environmental and health laws to catch up to the dangers of asbestos.
Jordan: So finally, the state came and said that they had to do something about the ventilation to take out the dust, and when they installed a ventilation system, I mean, it took away all that dust.
Jordan says he's been tested a couple of times over the years, and yeah, there's asbestos in his lungs. But so far, at age 75, he hasn't gotten sick.
Carolina Asbestos changed hands in the 1960s and the mill closed for good around 1970. Over the years, workers sought compensation for their asbestos-related health problems, says Blodgett.
Blodgett: Toward the end of the time that it's there, people start getting ill. And people are beginning to recognize the illness. There are efforts made to sue the mill because of the lung diseases that are caused. 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.
The first legal actions actually came in the 1930s. Employees sued the company after being diagnosed with asbestosis. Over the next couple of decades, there were some victories and some losses. In 1937, the State Industrial Commission agreed to pay a total of $40,000 to 78 people who had worked at either Carolina Asbestos or Southern Asbestos in Charlotte. Payments ranged from $75 to $2,200 dollars, according to a report in the Charlotte Observer at the time.
A former mill worker named Jackie Torrence tried to get lawsuits going for years before he died in 2010, though his own cause of death is unclear.
Blodgett: Jackie Torrence, who just died a few years ago, spent most of his life trying to still help the people who were still alive, who were suffering and the families of people who their main breadwinner, got lung disease, became too ill to work had medical bills, trying to pursue some sense of justice.
It's not clear if Torrence ever did file a claim or a suit. Most people who sued or tried to sue were unsuccessful, either because courts rejected their claims or they were told they were too late. North Carolina law says a suit must be filed within three years of a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
What Is Asbestos?
So what is asbestos? It's a naturally occurring group of minerals valued for their fireproof qualities. Beginning in ancient times, it was known as the "magic mineral." It's been used in brake linings, building and pipe insulation, shingles and tiles. Until the 1980s, it was even used in hair blow dryers.
But for more than a century, and probably longer, there have been reports 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.
Linda Reinstein: There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. 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.
Reinstein's husband, Alan, died in 2006 of mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer caused by asbestos. She says he probably was exposed while working as a shipyard engineer. She travels the country educating people about the dangers of asbestos and lobbying for legislation. Reinstein says asbestos kills nearly 40,000 people a year. That's based on a 2018 study led by Jukka Takala of the International Commission on Occupational Health.
Reinstein: Because asbestos is such a minute, nearly invisible fiber, people didn't really understand the magnitude of their exposures. And in the early ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Companies didn't tell their workers.
And even when workers tried to sue their employers, companies often successfully convinced courts that their lung cancer had some other cause — smoking for example.
Davidson is not the nation's only "asbestos town." They're anywhere factories and mines have operated. And as in Davidson, it's often communities of color that are most affected, says Reinstein.
Reinstein: Normally these factories are built around a diverse population, I'll speak very candidly. They're poor communities, usually of color, and they don't have access to what you and I have access. There's inequities. But these underserved communities are highly at risk, not only for exposure but to have good medical care, follow-on medical care, access to legal justice, and more importantly, clean up these communities. So I feel it's very important for towns to understand what it is, where it is, and what do you do? Why can't we do a better job in the United States of communicating those things to a community that has been harmed by asbestos?
Among the more infamous examples of towns with asbestos problems are Libby, Montana, and Ambler, Pennsylvania. Libby was a small mining town that once supplied most of the world's vermiculite, one of several forms of asbestos. The mining company never warned workers about the dangers of asbestos, and people around town were exposed to mining dust and asbestos waste that was used as fill. At least 400 people have died there of asbestos-related diseases.
The Philadelphia suburb of Ambler was an asbestos factory town once known as the asbestos capital of the world. Public Radio station WHYY in Philadelphia reported on an EPA cleanup there in 2014.
WHYY (recording): Big white mounds used to stand just outside the suburban town of Ambler. Kids would sled down them, they played ball nearby. Those mounds, they were composed of deadly asbestos waste...
Thousands of illnesses and many deaths have been linked to asbestos in Ambler.
Just as in Libby and Ambler, 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 says both his father and grandfather died of cancer after working at the mill. But there were no autopsies or rulings certifying that asbestos was the cause, says Carr.
Garfield Carr: I wish I had a more definitive answer, but you know, unfortunately, I don't. 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, says his dad operated a weaving machine at the mill during the 1940s and 1950s, and was exposed to asbestos every day. Marvin Brandon says people didn't really understand the dangers of asbestos.
Marvin Brandon: There were times when we would go past there or take him a lunch, and he would come out and have to blow all this stuff off of him.
Experts say it can take as long as 50 years for asbestos-related diseases to appear. But once you get sick, it's almost always fatal. That's what happened to Marvin Brandon's dad. Although he was exposed decades earlier, he didn't get sick until the 1980s.
When Willie Brandon died, his death certificate did list asbestos as the cause.
Marvin Brandon: It wasn't mesothelioma, the way they do it now. I think it says "asbestos-cide" or asbestos whatever. But my dad did smoke a little bit. And he did die of lung, lung cancer. So there was a couple of things that probably contributed to it. But they did find asbestos.
Former mill worker Frank Jordan says asbestos diseases killed many of those he worked with back in the 1960s.
Jordan: Yeah, quite a few of them. And you want me to be honest with you? All of them gone that worked in the plant during the same time I was in there — they all gone on. And a majority of them died with the asbestos.
‘We Were Never Educated On ... What That Poison Would Do’
Contamination from the old factory isn't just an environmental and health risk on the site. It's also a problem throughout the historically African American West Side neighborhood nearby.
When the mill was still operating, clouds of asbestos dust drifted into the neighborhood and onto streets and yards. Waste asbestos buried in the mill yard also ran off into the street and a nearby stream. But the biggest source of contamination was asbestos brought into the neighborhood on purpose for use as fill in yards and driveways.
Asbestos has even been found in the town-owned Roosevelt Wilson Park a couple of blocks away.
And years after asbestos manufacturing stopped, kids played in and around the old factory — and the asbestos. Ruby Houston grew up and still lives down the hill from the mill.
Ruby Houston: And I know that the asbestos runoff was a runoff right here in front of my house. There was white water that some young people would get in there and swim because there was no swimming pool when I was growing up. Now my mother would not let me get in that water, but there were some people that did do that.
Scenes like these were a fact of life in Davidson.
Along the street behind the mill, a block-long, 25-foot-high mountain of earth is contaminated with asbestos. It's where workers used to toss broken shingles and other waste. The mound faces the historically Black West Side neighborhood, where some residents refer to it as "Asbestos Hill" or "Mystery Hill."
As far back as 1941, there were concerns. The Davidson Town Board passed a resolution that year asking Carolina Asbestos to cover the open ditch of waste, saying it was "a nuisance and menace to health."
An environmental analysis in 2002 estimated that Asbestos Hill contains about 2,200 tons of contaminated soil. But that's just a rough guess. It doesn't include asbestos that's probably buried elsewhere around the mill, or under its floors.
Former Davidson Mayor John Woods remembers riding his bike to the mill in the 1950s when that mountain was just a shallow pond filling up with waste asbestos. He and his friends used to make bets what color it would be.
Woods: My memories of that site are fairly clear, actually. We used to, as youngsters riding our bikes all over town, would even make wagers with each other as we rode around behind the building, to bet what color the detention pond would be on a given day. It could be asbestos white or purple or aqua and that green color. And it was just a local joke to us kids because we didn't understand, of course, the implications of that. And of course, piled all around in the back were broken shingles.
By the late 1960s, Carolina Asbestos had changed owners. By about 1970, it shut down as new health and environmental regulations came into force. It became a warehouse and distribution center. Those days, Davidson's asbestos problem wasn't talked about much.
In 1976, Charlotte real estate investor Robert Kenyon bought it. His daughter, Cynthia Chirot of Seattle, says he had no idea there was asbestos there.
Cynthia Chirot: There was no disclosure of the environmental condition in the paperwork, but I don't think he knew about it.
It wasn’t until complaints from neighbors about eight years later that Kenyon realized asbestos was left behind, says Chirot.
Kenyon may not have known, but neighbors knew all about the white powder at the mill. Vince Huntley of Mooresville grew up nearby and remembers playing around the mill with his friends on the way back from Cub Scout meetings in the 1970s.
Vince Huntley: We used to play in that building. We used to sneak in there, man, and run around and hide from each other. And come out, hair would be white, and you go home, and my mom would say, “Vince, where you been?” “Mom, I've been in Cub Scouts.” “Quit lyin'. You've been in that mill. It's all in your hair.”
Other times, they'd get boxes from the Village Store on Main Street and head over to Asbestos Hill.
Huntley: And we would get these boxes, and we would get on the hill and we would slide and we would run. And we would just slide down that hill right there into the road, man. Every day. I can't help but think about the number of kids my age that grew up with asthma that lived right there close to that place.
Wherever asbestos is buried, the biggest threat is if it gets kicked up into the air. Anyone who breathes in the tiny mineral fibers is at risk of an asbestos disease even decades later. Huntley, who's 57 years old, says he never got sick himself. But he can recite the names of friends who got sick or even died: Flip, Anita, Junior. He thinks the town, his school or someone should have taught neighborhood kids about the asbestos.
Huntley: We were never educated on the logistics of what that poison would do to a body. Only thing we knew, we were not supposed to go in that building... I think that the town of Davidson should have stepped up and done something more than they have done.
Huntley grew up and moved away, but new generations of children continued to play at the mill.
Then in 1984, an incident brought Davidson's asbestos problem to the surface. The county health department notified mill owner Robert Kenyon in a letter:
“On February 3rd, 1984, the Mecklenburg County Department of Environmental Health received a complaint from a Davidson resident concerning a whitish material covering her children upon returning from play. An investigation of this complaint and subsequent sampling of your property … revealed that a portion of the property was an abandoned asbestos disposal site. The site had been covered at one time, but now through the forces of nature, it was becoming uncovered, exposing asbestos.”
The letter said the asbestos was a serious threat to the health of nearby residents. Kenyon was ordered to cover the mound of asbestos with a fresh layer of soil and to monitor it.
“Given the serious nature of this problem, it is important that all work be done as soon as possible,” the letter read.
Kenyon did the work as instructed. But just as quickly, the 1984 incident reports were filed away. The mound of asbestos grew over with grass, shrubs and trees, and the old problem again faded from public attention.
Residents of the West Side neighborhood continued to worry about the asbestos. But permanently dealing with it wasn't on anyone's agenda — not the owners, not the town, not state or federal environmental officials.
‘It’s Buried Asbestos’
About a decade ago, developers began taking an interest in the old mill. After owner Robert Kenyon died in 2004, his daughter Cynthia 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.
It was at a pre-development community meeting in 2016 where town and environmental officials finally began to take residents' health and environmental complaints seriously. John Woods was mayor at the time.
Woods: 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.
At that public meeting, a developer unveiled plans to tear down the mill and build an upscale apartment complex. 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.
Houston: 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.
That was Ruby Houston, who has lived across the street from the mill since 1955 describing the problem in a 2017 interview.
Fellow resident Marvin Brandon remembers how the asbestos got there.
Brandon: 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.
And that's how former mayor John Woods remembers it, too.
Woods: People were welcome to drive their pickup trucks onto the site and shovel these fragmented pieces into their truck, and take them home and make them as fill for low points in the earth or as a cover for driveways. And I can distinctly remember driveways in town that had broken pieces of asbestos, as though they were little stones, you know, sort of defining the driveway for the residents.
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.
Jamie Justice: Yeah, it was hard to get my arms around exactly what it was. And you heard the concerns and wasn't sure what was true, what was rumor. And so it became this kind of strange thing.
Justice says the only thing to do was call for help.
Justice: We have heard the concerns. And I think that's what's helped lead us to say, let's bring in the subject matter experts, these environmental agencies — (Department of Environmental Quality) with the state and (Environmental Protection Agency) — to help tell us what we need to do to address the situation. And so we're thankful they're here. And we are appreciative of the residents being a part of the process so that we can address this concern. And that's part of our role is making sure the residents are engaged, making sure the agencies are, you know, addressing this concern. And I think we all share the same goal. We really want to see this concern addressed once and for all the right way, so that we, as a community can move forward together.
To Ruby Houston in 2017, town officials seemed to react differently this time.
Houston: I saw the concern on their faces. They acknowledged this is a problem. This is not good.
Houston said bringing the EPA and DEQ to town in 2016 was a step in the right direction. The DEQ took charge of contamination at the old mill while the EPA set out to learn more about reports of contamination in people's yards.
Investigators discovered that overgrown vegetation and a burrowing groundhog had loosened asbestos on "Asbestos Hill." The state ordered the owners to cut down the trees and shrubs, bring in new topsoil and cover the hill with matting and new grass.
Meanwhile, in early 2017, the EPA 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.
Ken Rhame: 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.
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. Here he is in 2017:
Tim Mascara: Guys in full white suits and gas masks on, respirators on, pushing lawnmowers across the yard. And then they caught all the clippings and put 'em on a truck and hauled 'em off and tested 'em.
At private homes and a 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.
One of the sites cleaned up was Davidson Presbyterian Church, one of the town's oldest Black churches. It's across Depot Street from the mill. A worker described the process one afternoon in 2017 as new gravel was being dumped on the parking lot.
(Recording from 2017 cleanup): All this new sod, all that stuff over there, that's all new. That was all taken out down to a foot, a little more … surface was scraped…
But even with the cleanup underway, tensions remained high between neighbors and town officials. At one neighborhood meeting, Town Manager Jamie Justice faced angry residents.
Justice (recording from the meeting): We're connecting the dots now with a process to go forward. Now we have the facts, and that's what this is about is finding out what the facts are and what they're gonna do with it so we can move forward --
Resident: Sir, you had facts before this.
Justice: Well to me now … I'm just telling you...
Resident: I'm not arguing with you. But again, you gotta listen to the people...
Justice reminded residents that while the asbestos may have been ignored in the past, federal and state officials were here now working on it.
But today, Davidson's asbestos troubles still aren't over. A year ago, soil tests found asbestos at Roosevelt Wilson Park, a couple of blocks away from the plant. And at a community meeting, residents insisted that previous testing hadn't found all the asbestos in people's yards. So, the EPA began 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.
Angela Miller: 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. And when we expanded our sampling, we have now discovered that that was, in fact, the truth.
Miller says it's not clear yet what this new cleanup will cost. The EPA will be back in February and March to remove and replace soil at 11 more properties found to have high levels of asbestos, including the town-owned park. Miller says the park will probably be excavated first.
Parts of the park these days are surrounded by orange fencing and warning signs while the town awaits the cleanup.
This next cleanup will take two or three days at each property and six to eight weeks total, says Miller. Just like in 2017, workers will be wearing white protective suits and using equipment to monitor for any asbestos that gets into the air, where it's most deadly. Miller described the process at a virtual community meeting:
Miller: We're gonna wet the contaminated soil before we excavate. And once we remove contaminated soil, we'll do what we call a confirmation soil sample, we'll take a sample to make sure that, you know, we got it.
A layer of plastic fencing will be laid down to mark the depth of the EPA excavation for anyone who tries to dig there in the future. Then clean fill and fresh sod will be brought in on top, says Miller. Likewise, driveways will be repaved.
Miller: And we're going to restore the areas to their original condition, or sometimes better.
Residents who live at or near the area will be offered hotel rooms during the work, though the EPA says it should be safe. Tim Mascara lives across the street from the mill and had his yard cleaned up in 2017 and says it was a smooth process.
Mascara: They put us up in a hotel, paid for it, paid for all of our food that we needed.
The contaminated soil will be taken away from Davidson to an EPA-approved landfill. The EPA hasn't said where.
Asbestos contamination is also why workers in white suits and respirators have been seen lately removing dirt from Sloan Street behind the old mill. Charlotte Water is upgrading a water main through the neighborhood. Workers have been spraying construction trenches with water, bagging the asbestos-contaminated soil and carefully loading it onto dump trucks.
Because of the possibility of finding asbestos, Charlotte Water had to develop an "asbestos work plan" and give workers safety training before they started digging. The work plan spells out how contractors would handle any contaminated soil.
Once the tainted soil is out and the water main installed, trenches are being filled with clean soil, says a Charlotte Water spokeswoman, Jennifer Frost. She says it's tough to say how much asbestos-containing material was found. The asbestos removal is expected to be finished in the coming days.
As we'll hear in a few minutes, town officials say precautions like the ones Charlotte Water is taking will be required on future utility and construction projects on Davidson's West Side wherever asbestos might be a risk.
Even with more cleanups, residents have another big concern: Once asbestos is mostly gone and the mill is redeveloped, 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.
Brandon: I actually get letters, I get calls, I get texts. 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.
Worries about gentrification are an undercurrent in discussions about what happens to the old mill. After the break, we’ll discuss yet another developer who is trying to put together a project and hear from residents who remain wary about both asbestos and the future of their neighborhood.
‘Now All Of A Sudden … We’re Getting Overcrowded’
Beyond health concerns, neighbors of the old Carolina Asbestos plant worry that redevelopment could hasten the gentrification of Davidson's West Side. Erving McClain has lived in the neighborhood her entire life and sees new people moving in.
Erving McClain: There was a time when nobody wanted to come over here but us. Now all of a sudden, if you can look around, we're getting overcrowded with them. They wantin' to do and change the whole thing. And it takes away from, you know, the feeling of home and family around here.
McClain says she gets calls all the time these days asking if she and her husband want to sell their house. She knows change is inevitable, but her answer won't change.
McClain: No, we're not gonna sell.
Just how much pressure the neighborhood faces could depend on how soon the old Carolina Asbestos mill is redeveloped.
Adaptive reuse of old factories is happening all over the region, and developers have had their eyes on the 130-year-old Linden Cotton Mill in downtown Davidson for years. Not far from the mill, the century-old Davidson Cotton mill houses offices and a popular restaurant, the Brickhouse Tavern. And a few years ago, Davidson College renovated the 1920s-era Bridgeport Fabrics factory into a co-working space and business incubator.
Now a Charlotte developer wants to turn the Linden Mill into offices, shops and maybe a brewery or restaurant. Mark Miller of Lat Purser & Associates is leading the effort:
Mark Miller: We came across the Linden mill and just thought that was a very unique opportunity to preserve the mill building. We felt like there was a lot of character in that building, and that preserving that character would add a lot to what is already a pretty dynamic town of Davidson.
The company has been working on the $14 million project since 2019. But it's slow going. That's because from 1930 to about 1970, Carolina Asbestos Co. made insulating fabric, shingles and brake linings there from cancer-causing asbestos. And the site is contaminated. Over the years, workers tossed waste asbestos into a pit behind the factory. That pit is now a 25-foot-high mound with an estimated 2,200 tons of asbestos-containing soil that has scared off many a developer.
Chirot: So, we've had seven buyers since 2007, and all but the present buyer eventually did not proceed with the deals. And that was generally over the costs and risks of remediation.
That's Cynthia Chirot, of Seattle. She and two siblings inherited the mill in 2004 after the death of their father, Robert Kenyon. It's now the Metrolina Warehouse, where tenants include a furniture market, a bicycle business, a CrossFit gym and a bottled-water business. The family has no plans to clean up the asbestos themselves. Chirot says they'd like to sell the building for a higher use, which would include a cleanup.
Chirot: This is a site that needs to be redeveloped. I mean, it's because of the nature of the site, it needs a permanent cap, it needs a permanent solution, and it needs something that will be an asset to the neighborhood and to the city.
Many town officials agree that a redevelopment can bring that "permanent solution." But during his term as mayor, John Woods watched developers come and go.
Woods: That site, when you look at it from the 50,000-foot level, is an incredibly valuable site to the town of Davidson. We had great hopes that if and when rail transit ever gets to Davidson, that that could become a hub.
But a cleanup would be a big chunk of the cost of any redevelopment. Developer Mark Miller says if he eventually goes forward, the plan is to permanently cover the asbestos, not to remove it. He thinks it could cost about $5 million — just a ballpark figure.
Miller: Right now, this site is in a temporary state, and it won't last forever. And so a developer or a group needs to come in and permanently encapsulate the site and take this liability off the table for the town and for the neighborhood.
The question is where the money might come from. The Davidson Town Board plans to lobby this year for state and federal funding, says current Mayor Rusty Knox.
Rusty Knox: Well, it would mean a lot ... to have an opportunity to redevelop that site.
Knox sells real estate, and he says he actually has firsthand knowledge of the difficulties of redeveloping the mill.
Knox: Probably 25 years ago, I had a contract on this place as well. And I had a developer out of Pittsburgh that was looking at doing something commercially with it. And we did some sonograms, surface sonograms to kind of get a pulse of what we were looking at if you had to clean up that ... I call it the grassy knoll, I know it's been called a lot of things. But we couldn't get a bearing of how much asbestos was buried there. We didn't know if it was a ton or 10 tons. We had no clue because you don't have really an inventory list that you can hold up and say this, this, this were buried there so ... you know, my guy just spent $5,000 to $10,000 doing some tests, and he went back to Pennsylvania.
Any developer who tries to solve this puzzle won't have an easy time of it. But state law offers a path for redeveloping sites like this one. It's called a 'brownfields agreement," and it spells out how a developer will clean up a site that has environmental problems. It also protects developers from liability, makes local governments eligible for federal cleanup grants and can include tax breaks. Once it's approved, a developer has a better chance of lining up financing from a bank or investors. North Carolina has signed nearly 600 agreements since 2007.
Another developer started the process in 2016, when he proposed razing the mill and building a four-story apartment complex. That never happened, but Carolyn Minnich of the state Department of Environmental Quality says the draft agreement is now in the new developer's hands.
Carolyn Minnich: They've since submitted a draft asbestos management plan. We've sent them comments back... it is moving a bit slowly, but we're making a couple steps forward.
That Developer, Lat Purser & Associates, previously cleaned up and redeveloped a site off Freedom Drive in Charlotte that's now home to an advertising agency, Wray Ward. Still, asbestos presents a whole raft of new challenges, says the company's Mark Miller.
Miller: We really had to peel that onion back to understand what they really were. And admittedly, I mean, I've learned a lot more about asbestos than I ever thought I was going to learn. So, it's obviously a delicate situation.
Miller also says the project now faces another challenge: the changing real estate market amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Miller: You know the pandemic has certainly had a significant effect on really more of the space planning... Now you have to think about what are the right uses… Originally we were heavy on food and beverage, we were heavy on retail… Now we have to relook at that.
Miller says that means the mill could wind up being offices instead of shops and a brewery.
Asbestos, COVID-19, and there's another barrier, says former Mayor Woods:
Woods: This site is an example of the community relations that exist here in Davidson — the lingering long-standing mistrust, in some cases, of intentions.
People in the nearby West Side neighborhood worry they'll somehow be hurt by a redevelopment. For one thing, they're concerned that any construction will disturb the asbestos. Former town board member Garfield Carr is a lifelong West Side resident whose father and grandfather died of cancer after working at the asbestos mill.
Carr: Personally, I wouldn't put a business in that building, given what I know, from, you know, growing up near it… And I think it would cause more harm than good. You know, if it could be torn down and just planted over, it'd be fine. But I don't know if I would agree to any development there.
Garfield Carr's mother, Evelyn Carr, has been saying the same for years. She spoke out at a 2019 community meeting about the latest development proposal:
Evelyn Carr (recording): I'm hoping that you don't do it because we have lost a lot of people. 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.
Those feelings run deep in the community. Over the years, neighbors have complained that town officials dismissed their warnings about asbestos. At a public meeting in January 2020, resident Dora Dubose told town and state officials people feel ignored.
Dora Dubose (recording): You know it's dangerous. l don't mean to sound like I'm angry, because when our voices escalate, it's because of the pain and the hurt that we've endured for years in this town.
To Rosalia Polanco, the failure to deal with asbestos for so long is a case of environmental injustice. She's a 2018 Davidson College graduate who studied the issue for a senior paper in her environmental studies major.
Polanco: I still believe that it truly was an environmental injustice, specifically environmental racism. So environmental injustices are when certain communities are disproportionately being adversely affected by something in their environment. So, in this case, that area of Davidson was historically predominantly African American... And so, they were for years — for decades — being directly exposed to the asbestos.
Polanco's research found that it's harder and takes longer for hazardous waste sites in minority communities to get listed on the EPA's Superfund priority list. In Davidson, she says local officials had many chances to improve the situation, but did not.
Polanco: I would say that the ownership was not taken part by the town of Davidson. The ownership of the problem was very much so being deflected onto history and and to the past... This happened in the past. The people who were responsible for the asbestos in the past are no longer here. And so we cannot be held responsible.
For Black residents in Davidson, the list of grievances goes beyond asbestos. Decades ago, West Side residents complained that the town never fulfilled a promise to replace a baseball field lost to development. They say their streets were poorly maintained for years, while streets in the white sections of town were brand new. And there are broader complaints like historic segregation and workplace discrimination.
Still, some neighbors say they're not opposed to the development as long as it cleans up the site and they can still afford to live here.
Whatever happens to the Linden Mill almost certainly will require better relations between the neighborhood's African American residents and town officials. Ruby Houston says it's already begun.
Houston: It is a work in process… I think that we have a long way to go. We have a long way to go. I quote Martin Luther King all the time. We don't know each other because we haven't communicated. We haven't communicated because we fear each other.
‘We’re Doing Our Absolute Best’
At an EPA information meeting on Zoom on Jan. 27, a resident submitted an anonymous comment bristling at the name for this project, "Asbestos Town." They wanted to know what it would take to give the town and the neighborhood a clean bill of health. EPA Risk Assessor Tim Frederick answered.
Tim Frederick: I don't think that we can ever say that we've, that we know 100% where everything is, and it's 100% gone. We're doing our absolute best to find it where it is and remove it. And and that's what we can do. And when we're done, we'll show that that work has been completed.
Town and state officials agree with Frederick. They say Davidson will always need a way to signal future generations that asbestos could be stirred up with any construction or public works projects on the West Side. Doug Wright is the town's public works and project manager.
Doug Wright: Any work that takes place in the neighborhood in the future where there's excavation to a deep depth, such as the Charlotte Water project, this will be a consideration. And the town will be putting some things in place with our permitting process that will flag these potential basement excavations, somebody building a pool, etc. So, there's an awareness out there if that does happen in the future. We are already doing that with any utility work that's taking place in the area and also with any town projects in the area.
The easiest way to warn future property owners would be to record asbestos notices with property deeds. But nobody likes those, because — no surprise — that can hurt property values. Former mill owner Robert Kenyon balked at doing that after asbestos was first discovered there in 1984.
North Carolina environmental officials have taken another approach. A year ago, they proposed designating part of the neighborhood as an "asbestos watch area." Jim Bateson of NCDEQ says the zone would be flagged on the county's POLARIS real estate information system, warning future residents or developers to be careful of asbestos.
Jim Bateson: We would not have recorded declarations of permanent land use restriction. I think that would be a difficult thing to pull off. But what we will have is a layer that anybody working in real estate these days, they go on to Polaris, and they could very quickly see whether sites have wetlands or groundwater restrictions, or in this case, asbestos watch area with the need to proceed with care, and links to people that can help them do just that.
Bateson says the "asbestos watch area" hasn't been approved yet, and it remains a "missing piece" in the state's response to asbestos in Davidson.
There are many unanswered questions in Asbestos Town. Like has it made people in Davidson sicker than elsewhere? A state environmental health report in 1984 was inconclusive. Officials had only countywide data, not data specific to Davidson. It did warn, however, that more testing was needed and said the Davidson site "will constitute a hazard for this community until all friable asbestos materials are fully covered."
When concerns about asbestos arose again in 2017, state health officials looked again to see if there was an increase in mesothelioma and lung cancer in Davidson. The state's Central Cancer Registry listed a few cases between 1995 and 2014. But a state health spokeswoman says a lack of data makes it impossible to analyze cancer rates at anything narrower than the county level.
Meanwhile, some residents think asbestos contamination is not limited to the West Side. They remember it. Hope Nicholls of Charlotte grew up a half-mile away on North Main Street and says her parents put it on their driveway.
Hope Nicholls: We had a really kind of steep driveway, and it was paved with asbestos tiles. It must have been leftover stuff. And the more you drove over it, the more dust it created.
Nicholls says she's not aware of anyone who got sick. But asbestos-related diseases can take up to 50 years to show up. Meanwhile, that driveway may be safer these days: Nicholls says eventually her dad paved it over.
Many longtime residents and natives have stories like this. They often laugh nervously as they talk about how they or their parents or their neighbors could have done something so dangerous — at least as we know now.
Since 2017, the EPA has tested a wide area of Davidson's West Side plus a few properties in other parts of town. One parcel slated for cleanup soon is about a mile away in Cornelius. But apart from that, the EPA's Angela Miller says so far they haven't found asbestos anywhere else in town.
Even though Miller has been working on asbestos here for four years, it's not how she thinks of the town.
Miller: To be honest, when I come to Davidson, I don't see asbestos. I don't think asbestos. Davidson is a beautiful community. Everybody wants the same thing. Everybody, both sides of the railroad track... It's just, it's just a really nice, small community that comes together, you know, when there's an issue and they work together to resolve it.
The question is whether residents of Davidson's West Side will ever feel like they're part of the conversation. To Marvin Brandon, the proposed mill project goes beyond worries about asbestos. It's about how it might spur gentrification.
Brandon: I just think we have to be more cognizant of how it's affecting those who really can't afford to do anything different… This community will eventually be nothing but rich people. It already is the richest town in North Carolina. But eventually, when there's no younger people that can afford to move back into Davidson. When there's the older people on the West Side that pass away and their children don't reclaim their property, then somebody else is going to come in and tear down what they don't want and rebuild. And I just think it's not good.
As hard as it may be to clean up asbestos, saving a neighborhood is an even more monumental task.
For WFAE, I'm David Boraks