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ALL'S NOT WELL UNDERGROUND: WATER CONTAMINATION ON RISE

ALL'S NOT WELL UNDERGROUND: WATER CONTAMINATION ON RISE

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WILMINGTON (AP) - When asked about a place where tap water reeks of gasoline Rick Shiver used to be able to recite who reported the problem, when it was discovered, how it was found and the name of the culprit.

But not anymore.Shiver, a state hydrogeologist, now keeps a list of more than 100 places where the ground water is contaminated in his seven-county territory. The details of the cases have become a blur.

And the list keeps growing.

``We're virtually overwhelmed by the new reports ...,' Shiver said. ``Most of our time is spent going out to check on people who say, 'We have gas in our wells.''

The situation is the same across the state. Underground storage tanks are leaking, waste lagoons are seeping, chemicals are spilling, and more of the state's ground water is becoming unsafe to drink.

Inspectors in the N.C. Division of Environmental Management's seven regional offices have found a total of more than 1,200 cases of ground-water pollution. They suspect many more undiscovered cases lurk beneath the ground.

The state's policy is to see all of this pollution cleaned up. But reality says otherwise.

``Each of the regions has probably a couple hundred or more of these pollution incidents to work on,' said Perry Nelson, chief of the division's ground-water section. ``They obviously can't do anything meaningful on all of them.'

In the Wilmington regional office, for example, a staff of five must oversee ground water problems in New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Pender, Duplin, Onslow and Carteret counties. The office keeps files on more than 100 cases of ground-water pollution and is supervising cleanups in about 35 of them, Shiver said.

Although ``there's a dream' to clean up every case, Nelson said, the state's arm can stretch only so far. The limited staff must set priorities and focus on the most critical cases, he said.

Inspectors use a point system to rank cases of ground-water pollution. The worse the pollution, the more points it gets. Typically, the highest-ranking cases are those where freshwater streams or wells have become polluted. Cases where pollution enters a sewer system also rank high.

The ranking system is far from perfect, state officials say.

``It's crude, and it's approximate,' Shiver said. ``It does not always reflect what I think are the worst cases.'

For example, he said, the system does not consider that different contaminants cause different degrees of harm. Carolina Power & Light Co.'s Sutton Lake, because of its size and impact on nearby wells, is ranked as the region's worst case of ground-water pollution. But since the contaminant - chlorides - is not a hazardous material, Shiver questions whether CP&L belongs at the top of the list.

Another problem is that some cases of ground-water contamination are missing from the list. Some cases the state simply doesn't know about. Others predate the state's list and haven't been ranked.

State ground-water specialists have been trying to revise the ranking system to resolve such problems, Shiver said. In the meantime, their existing system helps them decide where to start their long, slow cleanups, which can take years.

When someone reports that his tap water tastes bad, that kicks off a process that can keep state officials busy for months. First, they test the water. If it is contaminated, they must track down the source. That can be difficult.

Take the case of the Jennifer subdivision off Mount Misery Road near Leland. Following a complaint filed in September, state inspectors found gasoline in the wells of five families. They believe the gas leaked from an abandoned grocery store nearby, where old underground gas tanks were removed about a year ago, Shiver said. But their first drilling samples failed to turn up proof, so they must drill the area again.

``That's the only source we can see,' Shiver said. But since drilling turned up nothing, they cannot notify the store-owner to clean up the gasoline.

Once the person responsible for the pollution is found, the person - or the state, if the person is unable or unwilling - hires a consultant to examine the spill. The consultant figures out how to clean it up, and the state must approve the cleanup plan. When those at fault resist, the state takes legal steps to recover the costs.

Months, and sometimes years, usually pass before the cleanup begins. And depending on the extent of the pollution, the cleanup itself also can be lengthy.

At Occidental Chemical's plant at Castle Hayne, cleanup of a huge chrome spill has been under way since the mid-1970s. The chrome was spilled when Diamond Shamrock owned the plant. Ninety percent of the spill has been cleaned up, Shiver said. It is likely to take Occidental Chemical another 20 years to finish the job, he said.

With the help of new regulations that require better maintenance of underground tanks, state officials hope to prevent more underground pollution. That way, maybe they can get around to cleaning up the pollution that has already happened. But they make no guarantees.

``We recognize that there are going to be obstacles ... which we may not be able to overcome ...' Nelson said. ``Our objective is to do the best we can. Where we can't succeed, at least we can identify for the public's benefit where the ground water no longer meets standards.'

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