Janice Whitley’s husband, Bennie, loved to brag about the quality of the well water at their home just outside the city limits of east Raleigh.
“He was a big water drinker,” said Whitley, 81. “He had a glass of water on the table all the time.”
Bennie Whitley, who was treated for Hodgkin lymphoma a decade before he died of a stroke in 2008, probably would have been surprised to know the water wasn’t as pure as he thought.
Low-level concentrations of four carcinogenic chemicals were found in some neighborhood wells in 2012. State environmental officials concluded in 2014 the contamination was likely caused by pesticides sprayed decades earlier to prevent termites or by agricultural operations before homes were built.
Now the Environmental Protection Agency has reopened its investigation based on test results that could reveal additional reasons the water became contaminated.
Crews are installing water filtration systems at some homes, but Whitley and her neighbors say that’s only a temporary solution, and they hope to tap into Raleigh’s water lines.
But it wouldn’t be cheap. It would cost about $1 million for dozens of residents in the area near New Bern Avenue and Trawick Road to hook onto Raleigh’s lines, said Evan Kane, a hydrogeologist with the Wake County Department of Environmental Services. Each household would pay about $2,200 a year for 10 years, plus a hookup fee of about $2,500.
Neighbors circulated a petition to 44 residents in the area asking the Wake County Board of Commissioners to pay for the hookups and to finance the project over a decade.
Fewer than half – 48 percent – of residents supported the petition, Kane said. Many of the residents are retired, and worry about the cost.
County commissioners considered the petition at a work session in May, but they plan to wait until the EPA wraps up its investigation in August.
In the meantime, residents are waiting – and drinking filtered or bottled water.
The area with contaminated wells is known as a “doughnut hole.” About 273 homes in four subdivisions – Trawick Dale, Colewood Acres, Timberlake Estates and Sumerset Acres – are surrounded by Raleigh city limits. They draw water from wells and use septic systems.
When the Whitleys built their home in 1960 on Shonnie Drive, the surrounding area was rural. But over the decades, the New Bern Avenue community has seen plenty of growth and development.
Raleigh has identified at least 50 major “doughnut holes” of residential development just outside the city limits, said Robert Massengill, the city’s public utilities director.
In 2009, Raleigh considered annexing the area off New Bern, but residents opposed the idea because they worried it would be too costly.
Because the contaminated water is considered an imminent public health risk, the utilities department would ask the Raleigh City Council to waive the annexation requirement, Massengill said. The arrangement would provide residents with city water but would not require them to pay city taxes.
A resident initiated a well-water test in the area in October 2012, and the results revealed the pesticides dieldrin and chlordane. Over the next two months, 11 more wells near Bond Street were tested, and seven were found to contain chlordane, heptachlor epoxide or dieldrin.
A dozen irrigation wells at Taylor’s Nursery on New Bern Avenue were tested in 2012 and revealed “extremely low” concentrations of pesticides, according to a 2014 Wake County report.
From December 2012 to March 2016, officials tested about 130 more wells in the neighborhoods. Forty-five of them contained pesticides, Kane said.
Fourteen of the wells had pesticide levels that exceeded state standards, and nine had levels that exceeded federal standards, he said.
Federal investigators concluded that the homebuilders or homeowners in Trawick Dale likely pumped pesticides into the homes’ foundations when they were built in the 1960s, said Kenneth Rhame, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA.
Back then, treating foundations with such chemicals was common. Many of the pesticides were banned by the 1990s.
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that these termite injections could have caused the contamination,” Rhame said.
After the EPA completed its initial investigation, the case was passed back to the state and county for further examination.
In February, a well built in 2003 was found to be contaminated with dieldrin and the industrial chemical tetrachloroethylene, known as PCE, according to an EPA report. The finding prompted investigators to begin searching for other sources of contamination.
“We’ve also gotten some anecdotal information about an airstrip that existed to the west that might have done some crop dusting,” Kane said, adding that an old aerial photo of the area shows what could be an airfield.
Kane said officials also found evidence of nearby property once owned by a company called Fly By Night.
The new information prompted the EPA to do another round of testing, Rhame said.
“It just leaves enough questions,” he said. “That allows us to go out and take care of these people while we figure out what’s going on.”
Since February, the EPA has been working with Wake County and state officials to install filtration systems at homes where water had tested above federal standards during the original rounds of testing.
The EPA has given at least four homes filtration systems, which can cost up to $6,000 each, or upgraded their systems, Rhame said.
“It was the fastest, most effective way to get people clean water,” Rhame said.
Recently, crews installed a filtration system at Roscoe Perry’s home on Bond Street. They built a shed that will house a large unit that removes contaminants through two charcoal filters before killing bacteria with a UV light.
Perry, who has lived in the home with his wife for 36 years, has been using bottled water to drink and cook meals since his water tested positive for dieldrin a few years ago.
“The only thing we used the water for was washing,” Perry said.
Whitley already had a filtration system because she and some others got money from the Bernard Allen Emergency Drinking Water Fund, a state program that helps low-income residents dealing with water contamination. Her water was found to have chlordane, which has been linked to liver disease and cancer, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the EPA.
Although residents are getting the filtration systems free, the systems cost about $700 a year to maintain, Rhame said.
About 130 homes still need testing, and no source for the contamination has been determined.
Whitley and Perry hope to tap into Raleigh’s water lines.
Perry, who helped lead the charge to create the petition to county commissioners, said he wants to know his water is safe.
“We kind of spearheaded the effort,” he said.
Whitley said she and others worry that in addition to their safety concerns, a contaminated well could hurt the neighborhood’s property values.
“These filter systems are only a temporary thing,” she said. “Because when you go to sell your house, how many people want to buy a house with a filter system?”
Whitley said she hopes county leaders agree to pay for her and her neighbors to hook up to the city lines. She knows this issue isn’t going away.
Pesticide contamination can disappear and reappear for years, said Rick Bolich, assistant regional supervisor at the state Department of Environmental Quality in the Division of Water Resources.
“There’s no way to tell how long this is going to last,” Bolich said. “And more importantly, the levels are going to change over time.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi
Wake County residents who live in the Trawick Dale, Colewood Acres, Timberlake Estates and Sumerset Acres subdivisions near East Raleigh can request a test for their well water. Call 919-856-7400.