This is the second of a two-part story about hazardous contamination at a former missile plant in Burlington that is threatening a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood. This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. Leer en español.
Inside Building 1A of the former Tarheel Army Missile Plant, a metal pipe rested on a table amid crumbs of broken glass. Many of the windows had been broken, so with no more effort than a step over the threshold, the entire contaminant 22-acre site was open for skateboarding, playing paintball, even homesteading.
This was the scene in early May. From the outside, little had changed from last November, when city, state and Army officials, as well as the current property owner, David Tsui, visited the plant in preparation for the next phase of the cleanup.
Sagging ceilings and collapsed roofs. Unmarked and overturned 55-gallon barrels of waste, one marked “suspect soil.” Gaping pits and open storm drains that lead to the city sewer system. Nearly all of the two dozen buildings had fallen into disrepair, state records show.
More than a quarter-century ago, the city and the military hoped that if the property were sold to a private owner it could be cleaned up and redeveloped more quickly. By working in tandem, officials thought at the time, private and public interests could make the plant useful again, to the benefit of the neighborhood and the entire city.
That never happened.
More than 15,000 pages of government documents and a dozen interviews reveal an exasperating story of failure and environmental injustice. Since the mid-1990s, the military has spent $2 million on cleaning up the facility, but untold amounts of contaminants remain, both offsite and in the neighborhood.
A permanent solution has been stalled by funding shortfalls, bureaucracy, contractor disputes, ineffective treatment systems – and a lack of attention.
The environmental costs have been borne by a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood in East Burlington. The plant abuts six duplexes and two single-family homes. Another half dozen duplexes face the facility. At least six more households lie within the path of groundwater contamination.
Because this is largely a rental neighborhood, few, if any residents know about the dangers the plant poses. Until three years ago, when the city held a community meeting about the plant’s economic future, there is no record that Army, state or city leaders had informed the public that hazardous chemicals had seeped below many of the neighborhood homes.
“Through that [community meeting] process we uncovered the breadth and depth of environmental contamination,” Peter Bishop, the city’s economic development director, told Policy Watch. “Until then the city was not part of the team. We were just ad hoc.”
Technically, there was no requirement to engage the public. In the mid-1990s, the Army had implored the EPA to keep the plant off the National Priorities List. Also known as Superfund, it contains some of the most contaminated places in the U.S.
When a property is enrolled in Superfund, it can still take decades to clean up. But one of the advantages of program is that it requires public engagement. An EPA staffer is assigned as a community liaison.
Extensive documentation about the site, its hazards and proposed cleanup methods are housed at the public library. There are legally required public meetings. Communities can apply for technical assistance grants to help them make sense of the science.
Had the plant been made a part of the Superfund program, the neighborhood could have been informed. They might have been heard.
Sandra George O’Neil is chairwoman of the sociology and criminal justice department at Curry College in Massachusetts. She has studied Superfund sites and their relationship to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In her research, O’Neil found that underserved neighborhoods are underrepresented in the Superfund program. These areas might not be benefiting equally from environmental cleanups.
Getting a site on Superfund, “is not a panacea, but they would get a lot of attention from the EPA,” O’Neil told Policy Watch. “It matters.”
A 2005 study commissioned by the EPA itself listed “empowerment” among the benefits of a site being listed on Superfund. Nearby residents could “hold the relevant organizations accountable.”
To be considered for the program, a potential site must score above 28.5 on the EPA’s Hazard Ranking System. The score weighs several factors, including the likelihood that contamination could leave the site, the toxicity and amount of the waste, and the people or ecosystems that could be harmed by a release. In 2017, the EPA added vapor intrusion to the criteria used in the scoring.
Cathy Kropp, an environmental public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Environmental Command at Fort Sam Houston, in Texas, could not provide the score the Burlington facility received or the methodology used to determine it; she referred the question to the EPA. An EPA employee with the Freedom of Information Office said the score is available but is in the archives. The archives are closed because of the pandemic.
An N.C. Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman said the agency did not have the score. Burlington officials said they never received it.
Kropp told Policy Watch via email that the Army opposed placing the property in the Superfund program in the 1990s because it “hadn’t yet gathered a lot of information about the site.”
Nonetheless, the Army seemed convinced that the plant posed no dangers. Based on an investigation paid for by the Army, military officials claimed the property wouldn’t score high enough to qualify for Superfund. “This request [to be excluded from Superfund] is based on preliminary samples, which do not reveal serious contamination onsite …” a July 1993 letter from the Army to the EPA read.
Military officials were concerned that if the plant entered the Superfund program, it would be difficult to redevelop, a common sentiment at the time. “It will delay the process and only reconfirm what is already evident: that any contamination at [the plant] is minor …” the Army wrote.
Several elected officials were also concerned about the economic fallout of the contamination. Then-Burlington Mayor Joe Barbour was quoted in the Times-News in 1995 as saying he hoped “the Republican Congress will eliminate some of the regulations keeping the property in limbo. The point is the pollutants will be there when Gabriel blows his trumpet. This is the same soil under which thousands of people have worked with no ill effects.”
State records show there was also dissent within DEQ—then known as the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources—about recommending the site for the Superfund program.
Assistant Secretary Linda Rimer in 1993 wrote to the EPA saying that the state was better equipped to lead a cleanup than the federal government. She cited the agency’s “present working relationship with the owners of the site and our technical knowledge and expertise related to the geology and other conditions at the site.”
In the letter’s margin someone had written: “Really”.
Rimer later went to work for the EPA and has since retired. She could not be reached for an interview.
Ultimately, the EPA obliged the Army’s and the state’s requests. The property did not enter the Superfund program. The Army avoided direct EPA oversight for the cleanup and since then has answered only to state regulators.
The state later seemed to regret the decision. Department meeting notes from 1999 read: “How can we back out as the lead and resume a secondary role behind Superfund?”
Someone signed the name Manny on a wall of Building 1A.
Graffiti garnishes several of the plant’s two-dozen buildings, evidence that people are hanging out there. But the plant apparently has also served as a home: cardboard beds, tarps, wooden pallets that had been burned for warmth and light.
Photos taken by public health officials in 2016 show someone had fashioned a small home and decorated it with a spray-painted sign: “Camp Awesome.”
The use of the plant by the unhoused worried state regulators 25 years ago.
In the mid-1990s the Defense Department had convinced Congress to allow it to sell contaminated properties as long as the military remained liable for the cleanups. In Burlington, the Army agreed to clean up contamination below ground; private owners would remediate hazards above ground, such as the buildings.
Free to unload the plant, the federal government initially proposed a reuse that would have put hundreds of people in harm’s way: a shelter for people facing homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledged the presence of hazardous contaminants, records show, but nonetheless determined the site “suitable” to become a shelter.
State environmental regulators disagreed, saying the public health risks were too great: “… we do not believe the property is compatible with a use that involves people living in buildings where they may be exposed to inhalation of asbestos fibers or exposure to lead.”
The state prevailed; the plant did not become a shelter for the unhoused.
After the homeless shelter plan was scrapped, the Army slogged through the cleanup, but made little progress. It seemed that everywhere investigators dug, probed or measured, they found more hazardous materials.
The Army’s cleanup goal of one year became five, then 10. After 25 years, the military stopped estimating.
“No one’s been keeping up with pushing the Army to clean it up,” Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis told Policy Watch. Until the last five years, he said, “efforts were limited to sporadic monitoring wells.”
Even in private hands, though, the property has foundered. It sat vacant until 2004, when the federal government finally sold it for $1.5 million to Hopedale Investment, owned by a couple who had earned their fortune in Amway.
An audio CD manufacturer based in Burlington used a couple of buildings for storage. Hopedale also allowed a local hospice organization to hold a flea market there.
Almost a decade later, Hopedale sold it for just $755,000—half of what they had paid for it—to Saucier Inc., of Alabama, whose investors included a mid-level NASCAR driver, Donnie Neuenberger.
Saucier’s plan was to strip the plant of valuable metals and then raze the property for redevelopment, according to media reports from the time. The company did salvage the metals, enough to recoup its investment, but otherwise let the property disintegrate.
Neuenberger could not be reached for an interview.
Saucier knew about the environmental hazards; land restrictions are recorded in the property deed. Nonetheless, in October 2015, the company hosted a public haunted house for Halloween, “with people accessing many of the buildings on site for the event even in their unsafe condition,” the state Division of Public Health later wrote. “This is an urgent public health risk.”
Correspondence between the state and Saucier detailed the degree of dilapidation:
“Roofs in Buildings 1, 2, 3, and 4 are caving in and collapsing under the weight of large AC units. Ceiling tiles are degrading. Electrical fixtures have begun to fall from the ceiling. Interior wall portions in Building 4 are beginning to collapse. Building 16 contains large sharp metal poles hanging from the ceiling. Asbestos is possible.
There is broken glass, broken wood, loose bricks, large empty barrels, debris, no electricity and the buildings lack natural light. There is a large hole in the fence in the northwest corner near Building 22, and neighboring residents indicate trespassers are gaining access.”
Saucier investors were growing disenchanted with the plant and the daunting prospect of redevelopment. However, Neuenberger had “developed an affinity for the property,” Burlington City Manager Hardin Watkins told Policy Watch. “He appeared to be a patient owner. He wanted to put more investments into the building. He told me that he didn’t want the property going downhill because it was too important to the community.”
Drive west into Burlington on Church Street at dusk and your eye will pass over a concrete steppe — the former plant parking lot—and catch on the horizon. The plant’s former radar tower and an old water tank notch the city skyline.
“Western Electric”—the locally preferred name of the plant—“is alluring. Its spaces are beautiful, evocative, and poetic,” wrote a team of national experts from the American Institute of Architects. “The power of place should not be underestimated. This place may be in fact the one common thing that touches more individual lives in Burlington than anything else.”
Concrete courtyards yawn between buildings, where a neighborhood dog occasionally roams. Steel beams elbow into the air above the graceful shoulders of the Quonset huts. Rusted stairways cast sawtooth silhouettes on a blank expanse of brick.
Nearly four years ago, Burlington won the equivalent of a $180,000 grant from the American Institute of Architects to hire national consultants, many of whom have led the redevelopment of former military sites.
The consultants’ job was to dream. To reimagine the 22 acres as a destination for the arts, food and community. A children’s activity center. A park. A brewery. A Cold War museum. Indoor soccer fields.
Building 16 would be renamed “Nike-2,” and be converted into university lab space. The upper decks, with their expansive vistas of the city, could accommodate special events.
Many Burlington residents told the consultants they felt emotionally invested in the plant, according to the study report. Their parents and grandparents had worked at Western Electric. Because of the secrecy surrounding the Cold War missile program, a community discussion about the plant’s future was the first time residents knew about what had occurred there in the past.
The forlorn property now seemed ripe with possibility. But a few months after the consultants issued their report, raising the hopes of city leaders, a man named David Tsui bought the property.
After five years of ownership, Saucier had seen enough. In June 2018, the company sold the plant to Tsui, who owns an orthotic shoe business in Chapel Hill, for $1.75 million, according to county property records.
Tsui did not respond to multiple email requests for an interview. Reached by phone, he told Policy Watch he was busy but would return the call. He didn’t.
Tsui appears to collect vacant buildings and allow them to idle. He owns the old Kingsdown factory in downtown Mebane, a former mall near I-85 in Burlington with shabby storefronts and few tenants. And the former missile plant, which under his ownership, has continued to deteriorate and poses serious public health threats.
“It’s a negative anchor holding that part of the community down,” Watkins told Policy Watch.
“And the anchor gets heavier as the years go on,” added Bishop, the city’s economic development director.
Building 16 has long plagued the Hilton Road neighborhood. Rain flows from the three-story structure and inundates the backyards of adjacent homes. It looms over four houses that lie in its cold shadow just 40 feet away.
Worse yet, said one resident who lives near the building, were the rats.
For a spell a few years ago, they often paraded across her yard where her grandchildren often play.
Tsui had hired contractors to demolish several structures, albeit without the required permits. Not only did the demolition potentially release hazardous materials into the air, but it also flushed out the rats.
“The dog killed them,” she said in Spanish, holding her hands about a foot apart.
Burlington officials issued a stop work order in 2018 to prevent further demolition until Tsui received proper approvals from the state and the city. No buildings have been torn down since.
A few months later as Tsui’s contractors canvassed the property to get a sense of a potential cleanup, they found dozens of 55-gallon barrels. Based on the labeling, some had stored hazardous materials. Another two dozen were unmarked and contained “unknown products.” In three buildings, several barrels were lying on their sides, their contents leaking onto the concrete.
State investigators warned Tsui that the plant now posed a fire hazard because some of the liquid was flammable. Testing showed many barrels contained astronomical levels of a dozen cancer-causing chemicals.
When the contractors returned to remove the barrels in 2019, they told the Army that they were afraid to enter the plant. “We’ve seen a number of people onsite (teens and adults) since we started work this week and are concerned about the safety of our personnel,” an email read.
Kirsten Hiortdahl, an environmental engineer with DEQ’s Superfund section, warned Tsui, the City of Burlington, the contractors and the Army that “the lack of security onsite is a safety hazard and a fire hazard; the extent of vandalism is extensive.”
In response, Tsui promised that he would install cameras and lighting to deter trespassers. “We will get it going hopefully by next week,” Tsui wrote on February 7, 2019. “Hopefully that will keep them out.”
Meanwhile, Tsui had applied to DEQ in hopes of entering it into the Brownfields program. This popular state program absolves owners and prospective buyers of contaminated property from liability, as long as they comply with cleanup standards for the intended use. Industrial uses, for example, have less rigorous cleanup standards than residential.
With the backing of a Brownfields agreement, property owners can more easily borrow money for redevelopment; the program also allows for a temporary, but significant reduction in property taxes that can help cover the much of the cleanup costs.
Being accepted into the Brownfields program was key to redeveloping the Burlington plant; in Charlotte, a developer used the program’s leverage to transform a former Army missile plant into a vibrant commercial district, with restaurants, offices, and art and design studios.
In August 2020, DEQ wrote a letter to Tsui about his application. The state detailed how his actions —unpermitted demolitions, leaking barrels of waste, vandalism—had raised doubts about his commitment to a responsible cleanup.
DEQ was also skeptical, state records show, because of Tsui’s criminal history.
In 2008, Tsui had pleaded guilty in federal court to five criminal counts for defrauding the Medicare program in connection with his orthotic shoe business.
He was sentenced to three months in prison, three years of supervised probation, and had to pay more than $781,000 in fines and restitution, federal records show.
In a separate case in 2019, Tsui paid roughly $414,000 in civil penalties and restitution related to an alleged kickback scheme with a pharmacy in Oklahoma, federal court records show.
“These facts … make it difficult for DEQ to envision developing a Brownfields agreement with you,” DEQ wrote.
Tsui’s application was denied.
Tsui plans to lease two buildings for storage, according to state records, and perhaps another for office space. The likelihood of this is unclear. But given that Tsui is ineligible for Brownfields funding, it’s unlikely there will be indoor soccer fields or museums or breweries, at least on his watch.
Mayor Baltutis told Policy Watch that although the city has no jurisdiction over the clean up, “we can tell the private sector about our vision, what we want to enable.”
But, he acknowledged, “the current owner presents challenges.”
This spring, the U.S. Army Environmental Command submitted yet another version of its environmental assessment, estimating the extent of the contamination at the plant and beneath the neighborhood. It is under state review.
Even after the state approves the Army’s assessment, the next stage is a feasibility study. And after that, the final cleanup plan. In other words, it could be at least a decade before contamination below the plant and in the neighborhood is addressed.
On Hilton Road, the spring wisteria has gone dormant. Raspberry bushes poke through the plant’s chain-link fence, fruit gleaming like purple sapphires. Tomatoes are growing in raised beds. Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It,” blasts from a stereo on David Spruill’s front porch. If the rain holds off, a summertime community block party will be held that afternoon.
Spruill has rented half a duplex here for 28 years, despite the flooding and contaminants directly behind his home. He can keep tabs on his mother, who’s in her 80s and lives down the street. He can walk to a nearby shopping center for groceries.
But the plant? “They ought to tear it down,” he said.
Another resident of Hilton Road, whose backyard meets the plant, said she is concerned about the environmental threats. Yet she is equally worried about being forced out of her home should investigators find contaminants on or beneath her property.
“I can’t leave,” she said in Spanish. “Where would I go?”
Tsui had told the Army in 2019 that he would install exterior lights and surveillance cameras to deter trespassers. This past May, they were finally in place—two years late. That month he also erected a perimeter fence.
By July, someone had cut a hole in it.
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