Davidson Mill Redevelopment Unearths Asbestos, Old Tensions

Jan 18, 2017

A plan to redevelop an old mill in downtown Davidson has led to the discovery - or re-discovery - of disease-causing asbestos on the site and around the neighborhood. As officials figure out how to clean it up, historical fears and concerns have surfaced as well.

The complaints Ken Rhame had received were quickly confirmed when he visited the neighborhood in November for the EPA. He spotted a suspicious white residue that neighbors were talking about.

“We saw asbestos containing material, or what we call suspect asbestos containing material, in the street. We sampled that material, got the results back the same day, which indicated that it was 70 percent asbestos,” Rhame said.

That wasn't a surprise to Ruby Houston. Her house faces a wooded hillside behind the mill, formed by asbestos. Some neighbors call it "Mystery Hill." Houston just calls it "asbestos hill."

“It's buried asbestos,” said Houston, who has lived here since 1955. “And I think it's probably more than in this general area. And I'm told it's buried underneath some homes, some businesses.”

Red area is the old mill property, with asbestos buried to the left and the old mill building to the right. Depot Street is at the top next to the mill.

BLAME THE GROUND HOG

Officials think a groundhog caused the recent spill, by burrowing into a soil cap from the 1980s. That kicked up the asbestos. When it rained, runoff from the hill turned white.  It's been cleaned up and a new temporary cap is in the works. But a permanent solution is needed before any development takes place where the old mill – now called Metrolina Warehouse - now sits.

It’s a one-story brick building on Depot Street, next to the railroad tracks in Davidson. It was built around 1890 as the Linden cotton mill. From 1930 to 1960, it housed Carolina Asbestos. The factory made asbestos fabric, tiles and shingles.  And they tossed waste asbestos into a ditch.

Houston says people didn't think about that, even though it turned the creek in front of her house milky. The health risks of asbestos weren't widely known. She says in the 1960s, high school students used to splash in the creek.

“So students would get out here in their clothes and their bathing suits and be all in this water,” Houston said.

Davidson Mayor John Woods talked about the old mill during a December meeting, along with town manager Jamie Justice (left).
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Davidson Mayor John Woods remembers those days. He and his friends sometimes played at the mill.

“We even rode our bicycles around to the back of the building once or twice a week, with a bet of what color the detention pond would be that day, whether it was asbestos green, or aqua, or white or some other color you can imagine of asbestos shingles,” Woods recalled.

You could come by with your pickup and get asbestos to fill in your yard.

“It was carted off to all points in the community ... used in driveways, as gravel would be used, or used as fill, or landfill, in areas where yards needed balancing and what-not,” Woods said.

HIDDEN DANGER

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, with good insulating and flame retardant properties. For much of the 20th century, it was used in many products - building materials, gaskets, automotive brake linings. But it has a downside - if the tiny fibers are inhaled, asbestos can cause health problems, including cancer and other deadly lung diseases.

It wasn't until the 1970s that the federal government began to ban asbestos products.

Robert Kenyon of Charlotte bought the mill in 1976 and leased out the space, to make a little extra income in his retirement. His daughter, Cynthia Chirot of Seattle, said it wasn’t until complaints surfaced eight years later that Kenyon realized asbestos was left behind.

“I do not believe he was aware. There certainly was no disclosure in the sale.  It just wasn't done back then,” Chirot said.

Kenyon was ordered to clean up the mill and cover buried asbestos with soil or pavement. When he died in 2004, Chirot and her two siblings inherited the mill. They've been looking for a buyer ever since. It's prime real estate - just a block from restaurants and shops on Davidson's thriving Main Street.

Miller-Valentine is proposing to tear down the old mill and replace it with a four-story apartment building shown in this rendering.
Credit Miller-Valentine/Town of Davidson

Several developers have shown interest, but nothing has panned out.

Miller-Valentine Group of Charlotte wants to change that by building Davidson Depot - a four-story building with 183 apartments.

But first, they need what's called a "brownfields agreement" with state environmental officials. It would spell out how the developers would be required to clean up the asbestos (Iikely by excavation and removal).

That would help them put a price tag on the work. And it would limit their future liability.

“You have to go through a bunch of testing to prove that you understand what’s there and then decide on how you feasibly redevelop it in a safe way that allows that property to be put back into use,” Rulick said.

Miller-Valentine has developed similar "brownfields" in Charlotte, and developer Charlie Rulick said they’ve learned: “The land has to be developed properly and safely first before we can put something new and better on top of it.”

LACK OF TRUST

Still, neighbors worry about disturbing the site. Iretha Kerns's family owns a house behind the old plant. She attended a December meeting with state and federal environmental officials to learn more.

“There's a lot of apprehension, nervousness, and just fear,” Kerns said.

Fear about what?

“Fear that the asbestos underground is going to become airborne and they'll start having problems again.”

It's not just the asbestos. It's lingering resentment about injustices, like how Carolina Asbestos - and the law - treated relatives who got sick. Some complained of illnesses as far back as the 1930s. But state courts often sided with the company and denied compensation for asbestos-related illnesses.

It's also Davidson's growth. The population has more than doubled in 25 years, and new development is squeezing the mill neighborhood on all sides, says Jan Blodgett, Davidson College's archivist and a local historian.

"It's their childhood play space ... it's the fear of gentrification, higher taxes coming on top of them.  So very complicated,” Blodgett said.

And it keeps getting more complicated. At meetings this fall, people told stories of asbestos in their yards. So the EPA began testing the soil. As of late December, significant asbestos levels had been found in 17 yards. Officials say that could grow to 25 or 30. Residents have been told not to mow, rake or do other yard work, which could send asbestos into the air.

MOVING FORWARD

Old fears have kept some neighbors from having their yards tested, says the EPA's Ken Rhame.

“There are a few residents that we've talked to that originally thought that we were there to try to take their property or claim that we were gonna condemn their property,” he said.

Rhame says they're starting to come around, after they see neighbors getting help and find out the EPA is paying for the yard cleanups.

He said the EPA plans to hire a contractor to remove and replace contaminated soil in neighbors’ yards, with the EPA’s Superfund picking up the cost.

Some neighbors still aren't sure about the development. One, Tim Mascara, started a "save the Linden mill" website (http://www.savelindenmill.com/). He worries about the safety of removing the asbestos and the loss of history.

“If it's turned into a four-story building you're losing a touch of history, you're losing stories of Davidson,” said Mascara, who lives across the street from the asbestos hill. “I live on the West Side, and how many of our residents, their families worked at that mill.”

Mascara would like to see a developer re-use the old mill in a development, as has happened in some Charlotte neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, some current tenants of the Metrolina Warehouse, like The Rumor Mill home furnishings market, are worried about losing their businesses.

Janie Slusarick opened Rumor Mill with husband Scot 3½ years ago. If the mill is re-developed, they’ll be out of business.

“We would like to see the building stay,” she said. “We hope they (the developers) back out, like all the others did.”

'THEY LISTENED'

As Ruby Houston looks out at "asbestos hill" from her front porch, there’s a sense of relief. She believes officials are finally listening.

“I saw the concern on their faces. They acknowledged, this is a problem. This is not good,” Houston said.

In the coming weeks, the DEQ is expected to approve plans for a new temporary cap over the asbestos at the mill. And in the next few months, the EPA will start cleaning up contaminated homes - for free.

All this will happen regardless of whether the developer moves ahead with building Davidson Depot. That final decision depends on whether the yet-to-be-determined cost of a permanent cleanup makes the project financially feasible.

RELATED LINKS

Davidson Depot development application and plan on the Davidson Town website, http://www.townofdavidson.org/909/Davidson-Depot

December 2016, Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet on Davidson Depot asbestos testing, 

December 2016, Environmental Protection Agency presentation on asbestos contamination at Davidson Depot site,