Chemical contamination at Iredell Co. library causes employee concern

(Amanda Foster | WBTV)
(Amanda Foster | WBTV)

IREDELL COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The soil at the Iredell County library in Statesville is deemed contaminated by a potentially harmful chemical.

State officials say it may have been this way for decades.

Iredell County was recently looking to buy up other property nearby. The soil there showed the chemical PCE, so the county canceled the buy. When crews recommended the county test at the nearby library as well, they did, and found PCE there too.

While the entire library was closed Friday and Saturday, now, just the basement is closed. This week, there has been no shortage of visitors at the library, despite the county's announcement of the potentially harmful chemical within its soil.

"The levels we tested are higher in the bottom level because that's closer to the earth," Acting County Manager Beth Jones says.

It is for that reason the county closed the building's basement, where children's programs had been located. They were moved upstairs over the weekend.

The discovery of PCE on library grounds is new, but the county was likely unaware of its presence when it purchased the land in 1999. However, it could mean health concerns for those who have spent extended amounts of time there over the years.

"[I'm] hoping and praying that [employees] are alright," former library employee Reitha Morrison says. "Especially the ones that've been there a long time."

Morrison worked at the library for 30 years, 10 years in the basement.

The Environmental Protection Agency says this PCE chemical could cause illnesses like cancer, which has Morrison wondering.

"I had some issues, breast cancer and some of my coworkers, I was their supervisor, they had some issues too," she says.

She is one of several who brought their concerns to a public meeting Tuesday, where state officials explained the chemical could have only come from area dry cleaners.

"The releases [of PCE] that we're seeing most likely occurred in the 50s, 60s, and 70s," Peter Doorn of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality says.

Those decades were times when there was no regulation of how the chemical was thrown away and over the years the small area near the library has been littered with dry cleaning businesses. There is only one remaining, but the source of the contamination could be any one of the eight businesses that have operated in nearby locations.

For Morrison, right now, she is just hoping her friends still working at the library have nothing to worry about.

"They're doing everything they can to provide the services and work with the children and the teens and I want them healthy," she says.

The state will now test each of those eight business locations.  They expect these tests to reveal where this PCE came from, what the concentrations of the chemical are in the ground and what other areas of downtown, if any, could be impacted.

There is a special program within the state's Department of Environmental Quality that focuses only on resolving cases where improper disposal of PCE by dry cleaning businesses has caused soil and air contamination. It is currently serving more than 400 cases statewide.

The program's testing in Statesville will start next week.

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