NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Three dropped lawsuits against the state’s environmental agency and four years later, a small community is again facing concerns over toxic-waste contamination. This time, their attention is focused on decisions from New Hanover County.
Marion Kreh, a resident of Wooden Shoe off McDougald Drive in Castle Hayne, is breaking out documents and binders donated by friends who have since moved on.
She’s letting her neighbors know, both old and new, “this ugly thing is happening again.”
Early last month, a community information meeting notice was posted quietly on New Hanover County’s website. The notice referenced a sand mine, the same sand mine that led 21 community members to initiate a lawsuit against the state’s environmental agency, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), now known as the Department of Environmental Quality.
Because the neighbors brought their case forth without legal representation, Kreh said DENR’s lawyers were easily able to point out flaws in their initial filing process.
“Since we’re not lawyers and we don’t understand, it was all of us that filed this,” Kreh said. “All of us had to withdraw.”
The lawsuit challenged the state-issued permit that would allow the mine; when the suit fell apart, the permit was modified. Now the property owners, Hilton Properties LP, need only get a rezoning approved by the county’s planning board and commissioners.
Before county officials hear the rezoning application, there will be a public meeting to discuss rezoning 63 acres of rural agricultural land in the Castle Hayne area to heavy industrial.
Area residents will have a chance to voice their concerns, which revolve around whether the sand mine will unearth toxic waste which seeped into groundwater on the site from the neighboring GE Hitachi plant; the GE facility has produced nuclear reactor fuel for decades, and in the 60s and 70s, heavy metals, including uranium, dumped on the property spread beneath nearby properties.
Wooden Shoe residents, for example, are all on well water. The neighborhood is bordered by an Inactive Hazardous Waste Site that some fear could be disturbed by mining activity.
Hilton Properties already has a state-issued mining permit with no expiration date; so for concerned residents, there are only a dozen people who could stop — or influence — the proposed operation: New Hanover County’s Planning Board, and ultimately, its Board of Commissioners.
Click to enlarge map below. The proposed sand mine site is shown in red, neighborhood of Wooden Shoe outlined in Blue. In the center, outlined in black, lies GE Hitachi’s property, where groundwater contaminants have exceeded state standards in the 2000s.
A retired secretary, Kreh is organized. But she hoped she’d never again have to look at the hundreds of pages she’d compiled four years ago.
“I just want to be left alone, at peace,” she said.
In 2014, before the county’s planning board reviewed Hilton Properties’ rezoning application and the state issued a sand mining permit, Kreh gathered 46 signatures, petitioning against the rezoning request. With only 60 or so homes in Wooden Shoe, Kreh said her petition included “pretty much everyone in the neighborhood.”
“You rezone a small area, next thing you know it grows and grows, and we’re sitting in the middle of an industrial pit,” she said.
The proposed sand mine site is enclosed by over 4,000 acres of undeveloped land. The owners are permitted to disturb 28 acres of a 63-acre plot; the mining site would only be accessible via Sledge Road, a 2.3-mile private drive off Castle Hayne Road. About one mile from the nearest neighbor, the 63-acre parcel’s groundwater has historically been found to contain radionuclides, including uranium, dumped by GE Hitachi.
In the late 90s, GE identified groundwater impacts from its early disposal practices. A plume of contamination breached its adjacent property line with what is now owned by Hilton Properties; a host of contaminants have continued to be detected in the soil and groundwater on Hilton’s land.
As recently as 2016, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ, formerly DENR) told GE that its Inactive Hazardous Waste Site required continuous monitoring. The contaminated groundwater plume had reached a nearby swamp, where the DEQ found upwelling groundwater was mixing with surface water.
Hilton Properties was aware of the groundwater contamination when it first applied for a mining permit, but failed to disclose that information to both state and local officials.
In its mining permit application, submitted in August 2012, Hilton Properties provided no mention of the chemical plume that had reached onto its property. Exactly one month after the state approved Hilton Properties’ permit, DENR requested property owners to submit a modified permit request.
The application was submitted to DENR by the Hilton Properties’ mining consultant, Floyd Williams. Williams had previously worked for DENR for 33 years.
Hilton Properties’ re-zoning application, submitted to New Hanover County in March 2013, provides no mention of a chemical plume. After the property’s neighbors brought forth concerns at the county’s Planning Board meeting, board members suggested Hilton Properties request a continuance to avoid being denied for its request.
“They’re trying to give as little information as possible so they don’t raise any red flags,” Susan Murphy, Hilton Properties’ closest residential neighbor, said.
Residents’ objections to Hilton Properties behavior
Neighbors of the proposed mining operation opposed Hilton Properties’ strategy in scheduling its introductory information meeting at 9 a.m., in a difficult-to-find spot, on the Friday before Christmas. Kayne Darrell, a Castle Hayne homeowner who also signed on the first lawsuit, said it appeared as though there was an intentional plan to limit attendance.
“We never would have been able to find it,” Darrell said.
Residents also objected to what they perceived as misleading information offered by Hilton Properties during the initial 2013 community information meeting, including a “letter of support” from GE that Hilton Property representatives referenced repeatedly.
In fact, GE’s April 2013 letter reminded the state of the chemical plume it had caused in the 60s and 70s. Some contaminants remained above groundwater quality standards on their neighbor’s property, the letter states. This could become an issue if the mine were to drain the water table to mine sand from deeper depths. However, as long as excavation activities were kept above the water table, GE said it would not object to the permit.
During New Hanover County’s Planning Board meeting on Feb. 5, 2014 — the day after DENR issued the mining permit — GE corrected Hilton Properties’ misrepresentation of the company’s support.
“GE Hitachi neither supports nor opposes the proposed operation,” Christopher White, a former GE spokesperson, said at the 2014 meeting.
Before residents spoke out at the meeting, Darrell said board members would have signed off on the project.
“They were willing to just approve the whole thing,” she said.
After the second suit dropped in 2015, Murphy, initiated a third lawsuit against DENR. Though all suits were later withdrawn, all alleged DENR failed to account for groundwater contaminants when it issued Hilton Properties’ mining permit.
“I don’t like people to get away with stuff when it hurts other people,” Murphy said. “It kind of lit a fire under my butt, but without any money to pursue it, it kind of just made me churn.”
Though DENR had been made aware of the chemical plume, it issued Hilton Properties a mining permit. It included no limitations on how deep permittees could mine near the water table. Murphy said the more the lawsuit went on, the more unpleasant it got. She said a DENR lawyer was condescending and intimidating.
“I don’t know all about mining and stuff but I’m not an idiot,” she said. “If I had a lot of money, I would have stood right up to him because I knew I was right. I couldn’t keep doing it.”
She attempted to gain representation from pro-bono environmental firms, but no one took the case.
“Everywhere I turned it was either too much money or it wasn’t a big enough story,” Murphy said. “I just knew it was me on my own.”
A local issue, now
When asked what the DEQ’s current stance is on the three dropped suits, Bridget Munger, DEQ spokesperson, pointed to Hilton Properties’ modified permit. This modified permit was issued in 2015, almost two years after DEQ’s letter citing the applicant’s failure to disclose contaminants.
DEQ scaled back Hilton Properties mining grounds, from 56 to 28 acres. It also includes an added provision that would cease all operations if required groundwater monitoring by Hilton Properties failed to meet state standards.
Murphy said she didn’t expect the DEQ to admit to a potential mistake.
“The permit is already issued so they’re not going to go back and say, ‘Oh, we messed up’,” Murphy said.
With the proposed operation secured under a lifetime permit, it’s now a local issue.
“Is this enough tax revenue for the county to go ahead with it?” Murphy asked. “I don’t know.”
From Murphy’s backyard, she can see Sledge Road, the private drive that leads to the proposed mining site. This drive could host as many as 30 trucks an hour, according to the 2014 presentation before the Planning Board.
Murphy takes no issue with someone doing what they want with their property. But she said the pattern of ommissions and risks ought to concern local officials.
“If nobody’s talking about it, then who cares?” she asked.
Author’s note: A representative for Hilton Properties has not yet responded to Port City Daily’s inquiry for comment.
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