I-TEAM: 'You cannot tell us that we have not been suffering': Was contamination in two Augusta neighborhoods deadly?

Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019
News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- As the News 12 I-Team continues to track cancer clusters from Hyde Park, state and county officials couldn't agree as to whether the park's contamination was truly deadly.

Meanwhile, neighbors are dying to prove it.

Three years ago, the city relocated all of Hyde Park, but another neighborhood was dying, too.

"It's a lot of calls that we been through to include accidental, natural, homicides," Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen said.

During the last 12 years of its existence, the Richmond County Coroner's Office has responded to 17 deaths in Hyde Park. But that number wasn't off-putting to Bowen.

"Nothing, no input that would alert to any environmental dangers that we should be looking at the time," Bowen said.

Seizure, heart attack, and hypertension -- these calls don't exactly paint a pattern of pollution, but by that decade it wasn't a matter of whether Hyde was contaminated right then. The question remaining was whether the contamination from decades before was deadly.

"I had a pimple, I tried to bust it but it wouldn't burst, so I kept going. My hair started falling out and I just keep falling asleep. [I] kept falling asleep everywhere I would go," said Maxine, who was born and raised in Hyde. She had lumps she said only doctors could remove.

"I ain't healed yet. I done had two surgeries: one on my brain, one in my heart," Maxine said. "You cannot tell us that we have not been suffering for this long."

Officials mapped out that suffering-county records show a cancer cluster. By 1995, a county health study found 180 neighbors died from cancer. Hidden in plain sight is something else in Hyde's history: the Virginia subdivision.

"Yeah, they told us not to be growing gardens and stuff because contamination of the land," Curtis Wimberly, a homeowner in that subdivision, said. "Ever since I was born and raised up, they all called it The Bottom."

Why was it called "The Bottom"?

"Because it's down in the hole," Wimberly said.

The Virginia subdivision is the next-door neighbor to Hyde Park, but right at its front steps is Southernwood Piedmont. That's the biggest industrial in the area that EPA found to be a hazardous waste site. It closed in 1988, but when it was operating right next to Wimberly's neighborhood, wastewaters with toxins flowed into on-site and off-site ditches. Those ditches then ran through Virginia as well.

Those ties are why the signs are eerily reminiscent of the signs once throughout Hyde, except these notices are still there.

"I know people who died down here," Wimberly said. "I don't know if it's contamination or not, but they probably died from some kind of disease, you know?"

Some of the people include a family who got really sick then died. Wimberly says they're still unsure of what caused their illnesses and later, their death.

State and county officials included the Virginia subdivision in its studies of contamination, finding the levels of toxins at the current time were not enough to be a hazard to health. But even the county noted it's impossible to know what previous levels of toxins were and their absolute effects.

The Health Department said in 2008 because Hyde neighbors relied on the ground and water to grow their own food for decades prior, past exposure to toxins was more likely. In the area known as "Bottom," he says historically they were raised to rely on the land, too.

"Yes, ma'am, right over there we used to have big gardens, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra all of that. That's what we used to eat," Wimberly said.

The signs caution them, but they offer little explanation.

"Certain polices when they ride by and see you down in the ditches. They'll tell you to get out the ditches because you ain't supposed to be in it."

The EPD says the signs went up in 1993, saying EPD inspectors and the city agreed it was a good idea. Our I-team found there's no regular city inspection or routine schedule to clean these ditches. Engineering told us it's just an as-needed basis.

"Well, we have ditches. And we're going to have them until we get rid of all of them in a good number of years, but is that good for citizens? No, it's not, but that's the system that we use and we're trying to change, and that's why you have the signs up telling you to stay out of it," Commissioner Dennis Williams said.

Whether or not they're in those surrounding areas is where the cloud of confusion sits. Their neighbors over in Hyde Park were dying to prove contamination, while in the Virginia Subdivision they're living for answers.

The neighbors have a theory that they didn't get relocated like Hyde because there was no city redevelopment plan, like the one for Hyde.

Hyde is a multi-million dollar project to make a detention pond, and the city says that theory is incorrect. We were told many of the Virginia Subdivision people took settlements with SWP to get out first.

Also during our investigation, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division told us they're having Southernwood Piedmont to do an investigation. The EPD says, even though the company closed, they're required to follow up. They're required to study the extent of their contamination.

Our I-Team we'll be following that investigation.

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