Wicker’s First Big Story
A Dark Day in Aberdeen's History
BY DAVID SINCLAIR
Nearly 40 years after Dr. Robert Mobbs first voiced his alarm about pesticide pollution, Aberdeen became the site of one of the largest and most expensive Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup efforts in the country.
In 1984, state environmental officials discovered a number of abandoned pesticide dumps, dating back to the 1930s and ’40s. At the time the chemicals, bags and containers had been buried, the practice was legal. But federal law later required companies to come forward to identify dump sites.
The EPA conducted an emergency cleanup of the five dump sites — three in the N.C. 5 area, one off Roseland Road, and a smaller site on N.C. 211 near the old Ciba-Geigy plant — hauling away pesticide waste and contaminated soil to an approved hazardous waste landfill.
The pesticide plant on N.C. 5 was part of the Farm Chemicals site, where three companies formulated pesticides. Taylor Chemical Co. operated there from 1936 to 1964. E-Z Flo, owned by Union Carbide Corp., operated it from 1964-1972, and Farm Chemicals Inc. operated it from l972 until it closed in the early 1980s.
The initial cleanup was paid for from the federal Superfund, while the EPA initiated legal action to recover the costs from a number of companies identified as being responsible for the dumps — Novartis Crop Protection (formerly Ciba Geigy Corp.), DuPont, Olin Corp., Union Carbide Corp., Shell Oil Co., Bayer Corp., Mobil Oil Corp., Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp., and Grower Service Corp.
127,000 Tons Processed
The Aberdeen Pesticide Dumps Site (covering all five dumps) was placed on the National Priority List in 1987, and the companies were ordered to come up with a long-term plan to clean up remaining pesticide contamination in the soil. The companies agreed to pay $60 million to cover all of the costs.
Under EPA supervision, consultants hired by the companies developed a plan to treat the remaining pesticide-tainted soil with a process called thermal desorption — which is similar to incineration, but at lower temperatures — at a facility that setup near the Fairway Six site adjacent to the Pit golf course.
The work began in late 1997 and ended in mid-1998. More than 127,000 tons of soil and debris were treated. The soil was tested to be sure it was safe, and then returned to the individual sites.
The companies also developed a plan for pumping up groundwater and treating it to remove any pesticides and installing a series of monitoring wells. No one was getting drinking water from wells in the area at the time. Studies also showed that while some low levels of pesticides were found in the mud under Aberdeen Lake, the water itself was safe.
The cleanup also led to one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on the effects of pesticide exposure on the immune systems of people living near U.S. chemical manufacturing plants and dump sites.
The 1998 study by scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did not turn up any major health problems, but it did find that some residents whose homes were within a mile of the pesticide sites showed elevated DDE levels in their blood. DDE is a byproduct of the body’s struggle to break down the pesticide DDT.
Younger Aberdeen residents, those between ages 18 and 40 — and people who lived there before 1985 when the plants were operating — did show a two- to three-fold increased risk of herpes zoster, or shingles, which indicates modest suppression of the body's immune system, the researchers found.
‘People Were Used to It’
The news release announcing the results of the study made a reference to Mobbs’ charges in 1949 that DDT and other insecticides were harmful to human health. He had suspected that the dust from a pesticide plant caused the death of his 3-year-old niece, Mary High Keith, in 1948. The family lived next to the old Taylor Chemical Co. plant.
David Keith, who was born five years after his sister died, says no one back then could have imagined the magnitude of the problem when “all of the big revaluations came about the dumps.” As a child, he played in what many refered to as the sulphur pits.
“We used to run across those big white piles,” Keith said. “No one knew back then.”
Keith, like many longtime residents, recalls the strong odor that permeated the air around the plant when it operated.
“People were just used to it,” he said.
By 1999, consultants for the companies said the low concentrations of pesticides in the groundwater around the dump sites were breaking down naturally and posed little threat. They recommended that the EPA drop plans to require treating the groundwater.
After conducting final inspections, the EPA issued the close-out report for the local site in November 2003, ending a chapter that had long been a blight on Aberdeen.
Contact David Sinclair at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a budding reporter with the former Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen back in 1949, Tom Wicker did not realize the magnitude of one of his first big stories.
A local doctor had told him that the fallout of dust from the Taylor Chemical Co. plant on the outskirts of town was dangerous to workers and the families living nearby. Dr. Robert Mobbs suspected that the dust was responsible for the 1948 death of his 3-year-old niece, Mary Hugh Keith.
Wicker, who went on to become a widely acclaimed journalist and died last Sunday at his home in Vermont, was fresh out of journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he took the Aberdeen job.
At the time, he wrote in his 1975 book “On Press,” he had “no real sense of the volatility or importance of the safety issues” when he reported on Mobbs’ charges and was “too inexperienced to know how to follow up, or even that I should.” The chemical company adamantly denied the allegations.
Shortly after reporting on that story, Wicker left Aberdeen for “greener pastures,” taking a job as sports editor of The Robesonian, about 50 miles away in Lumberton, and later hit what he thought then was “the big time” in 1951, when he became a copy editor and telegraph editor for The Winston-Salem Journal, where he worked for most of the 1950s.
Wicker went on to become a political reporter and columnist for The New York Times. His career soared after his dramatic coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He had won a spot as a political correspondent in The Times’ Washington bureau in 1960 and was the only Times reporter to be traveling with Kennedy when the president was shot in Dallas.
In 1966, Wicker began his “In the Nation” column, becoming, along with colleague Anthony Lewis, a longtime liberal voice on the op-ed page. Two years later, he was named associate editor of The Times, a post he held until 1985.
Wicker’s book “A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt” and his eyewitness reporting formed the basis of a 1980 television movie recreating the tragic events that followed the inmate uprising in September 1971. The prisoners took 38 guards hostage, demanding better living conditions.
After four days of negotiations, the siege ended with state troopers firing on the prisoners, killing several guards in the process. Wicker, who was one of the civilian negotiators, was played in the movie by George Grizzard.
Wrote 20 Books
Wicker retired to Vermont in 1991 but continued to write. He published 20 books, ranging from novels about gritty, hard-scrabble life in the South to reflections on the presidents he had known.
In his final column, published Dec. 29, 1991, Wicker commented on the fall of the Soviet Union and urged President George H.W. Bush to “exercise in a new world a more visionary leadership” on nonmilitary issues like the environment.
“As the U.S. did not hesitate to spend its resources to prevail in the Cold War, it needs now to go forward as boldly to lead a longer, more desperate struggle to save the planet and rescue the human race from itself,” he wrote.
Wicker, the son of a railroad man, grew up in poverty in Hamlet, N.C., and wanted to be a novelist. But he pursued journalism when his early books didn’t catch fire.
His first job at the now-defunct weekly Sandhill Citizen paid him $37.50 a week to report on such local news stories as the discovery of “the first beaver dam in anyone’s memory on a local creek.” He also covered court news and even sold an occasional ad, according to his book “On Press.”
But the most importantstory he wrote, time would later tell, was the one prompted by Mobbs’ concern. He was among the first to suspect that DDT and other insecticides might be harmful to human beings.
While Wicker had moved on from Aberdeen, Mobbs had to deal with the fallout from his allegations, which put him at odds with the chemical company and sometimes his own neighbors in Aberdeen, the very people for whom he provided medical care.
After his niece died of unexplained convulsions, Mobbs began to suspect that the exhaust from Taylor Chemical caused her death. He discovered that the plant was mixing DDT, sulphur and lindane into a crop-dusting compound. To protect workers who were bagging the mixture, the dust was blown out of the plant by a large exhaust fan.
The Keith family lived next to the plant, which was on N.C. 5 just above Aberdeen Lake. The girl played in the backyard and breathed in the dust, says David Keith, who was born in 1953, five years after his sister died. His mother, Iris — who was well-known around Aberdeen and for years was the town librarian — told him all about what happened and about Mobbs’ charges. Iris Keith died in November 2010.
“That exhaust fan blew the dust right onto our property,” David Keith says. “She got sick. Dr. Mobbs was with her when she died.”
Keith says that when his brother become a ill a few years later, their father immediately moved the family to Pinebluff. He notes that Mobbs was challenging a powerful interest.
“It was a company town then,” Keith says. “I admire him for what he did. This became his life mission. He never gave up on it.”
Taylor Chemicals, which operated the plant from the 1930s until the mid-1960s, was one of the largest formulators of pesticides in the Southeast.
Mobbs earned a reputation as a “zealot, a man who rocked the boat and who had given the town and one of its industries a bad name,” Wicker wrote in his book. He also wrote that Mobbs’ story illustrated the “necessity for whistle-blowers to hide their identities — to become ‘anonymous sources’ protected by a reporter from the vengeance of their superiors or neighbors or competitors or peers.”
In 1954, feeling “ostracized” — as Wicker wrote in his book — Mobbs moved back to his native Massachusetts, where he practiced medicine and continued his crusade on the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals.
For some 30 years, he served as an influential legislative consultant to congressional members, a member of the Massachusetts Pesticide Control Board, and a medical examiner for Massachusetts. As a U.S. Army Reserve officer with the rank of colonel, Mobbs commanded the 331st General Hospital in Lawrence, Mass.
‘Proud of Fight’
When Mobbs got the news in 1972 that the U.S. government had banned DDT because it was suspected to cause cancer, it was validation of more than 20 years of his life’s work, according to his daughter, Melannie McDonald, who lives in Moore County.
“He knew that he was right,” McDonald says. “This was something that was very important to him.”
Mobbs’ career was cut short by a massive stroke in 1987. No longer able to work, he turned his attention to family and moved back to Pinehurst in the early 1990s. He was in Boston when he died in 2003. The back page of the bulletin for his memorial service, held Nov. 13, 2003, at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, included excerpts from page 25 of Wicker’s book about his allegations in 1949.
“He loved to get out that book (‘On Press’) and talk about it,” McDonald says. “That was very important to him. He was proud of the fight and what he was able to help bring about.”
McDonald says her father was always very proud of the fact that Wicker wrote about him in his book and referred to him as the first “whistler-blower” he ever encountered.
McDonald recalls hearing her father say he was “annoyed” by the anger directed at him from some in Aberdeen before he moved away.
“I think he actually took pride in it,” she says. “He kind of liked to ruffle feathers. I am not so sure Mom liked it.”
McDonald says her sister ran into Wicker several years ago in New York.
“He remembered my dad,” she says. “That turned out to be such a huge story.”
Contact David Sinclair at email@example.com.
More like this story