I-TEAM: The poison of injustice and inaction tells the full story of contaminated Hyde Park

Monday, September 6, 2019
News 12 at 6 o'clock

A News 12 investigation has tracked dozens of deaths related to cancers from residents who lived in the contaminated Hyde Park. (Source: WRDW)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- It's been 3 years since the neighbors of Hyde Park were relocated from their homes.

The neighborhood was centered within industrial zones, but it was also at the center of confusion. Although officials found the surrounding industrial sites were contaminated, they could not agree on whether the area was contaminated. It's something people have been dying to prove.

Time ticks differently for those who are waiting. The wait often feels longer when it's measured by loss. Hyde Park saw plenty of loss before any resolution.

A News 12 report from 2009 shows much of the loss:

"I've been doing this for over 20 years," a neighbor said back then. "I think they're waiting for everybody to die."

Many of her neighbors had already died waiting to see if their neighborhood would ever get relocated. She explained that from her perspective, it looked as if the city was intentionally waiting to move people and to come up with an official relocation plan.

Present day, Commissioner Dennis Williams says that notion was a far-fetched one. Hyde belongs in his district. Though he was not around throughout the entire project, he did take office by January 2014.

"I'm sure in a time of any process there are people who die on out the picture," Williams shook his head. "But I don't think the city was sitting here waiting for people to die, to go in Hyde Park."

We found Hyde relocation talks go back as far as the 1990's. But it was not until 2013 the city began moving people out.

The process seemed just as troubled as the water and soil in the community.

Archive footage shows neighbors doubtful the city would actually ever move them.

"All they do is lie," a Hyde neighbor said in 2012. She found it hard to believe the city would relocate her family the following year. "Every time you go to a different meeting, it's a different story."

Three years came before the final neighbor went. By 2016, all the homeowners and renters were relocated.

We asked Commissioner Williams about the sense of urgency, or lack thereof, during the relocations.

"You guys got them out, but did you get them out too late?" we asked.

"Well, is the question 'too late?'" Williams responded. "See, it could come back I may have cancer and never lived in Hyde Park. You know, it's hard to tell the reason why you're sick."

"I got throat, lung cancer, I got stomach cancer, and I done had two or three strokes." Rosamae Singleton lived in Hyde since the 1950s. Now, she's bound to living in a chair in her living room.

Before Singleton's diagnosis, there were signs, one right before her eyes, that read "Caution, playing in ditches may be hazardous to your health."

There were other signs, too -- intuition, really -- saying something was not right.

"We started breaking out, you were scratching into your sores," Singleton said.

By 1996, skin rash was just one of the problems the Richmond County Health Department called "common" among Hyde neighbors. Rosamae was in stage four by the time she says cancer was spreading through her. Cancer was holding her community for ransom, too.

According to an open records requests, the 1996 county health department study revealed complaints of five different cancers seeping through the neighborhood: brain, bone, colon, lung, and skin.

In that same community study, the county health department concluded Hyde Park posed a public health hazard because of past contamination in the ground, water, and air. Adding, although the levels of toxins present at that time were less hazardous, they had no way of knowing for sure the past levels.

Yet, by 2008, state officials said no health hazard.

Georgia DPH submitted its health consultation in 2008, saying there was no apparent public health hazard. The DPH's Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry had testing samples which confirmed toxins in the soil and water, but officials said the levels at that time were not high enough to be a hazard.

The state went further by saying people were no longer using the groundwater or soil to even be exposed to the lower level of toxins. But, let people like Rosamae Singleton tell you, the past is just as important as the present.

Singleton's family used water pumps in the past for most of her upbringing.

Historically, Hyde Park was a neighborhood that used well-pumps to get the ground water. They planted seeds in the soil to grow food. It was the Hyde Park way of life because under Jim Crow laws and segregation, it was a neighborhood without proper running \water or an appropriate sewage system.

Remember that 1996 study? That's a point it made. It specifically cited lifestyles which could affect how long and how much neighbors were exposed past years:

1. Residents who planted gardens to supplement their food supplies and regularly ate the food they produced.
2. Residents who consumed live stock that they raised on their land.
3. Residents who used contaminated well water for cooking, drinking, and bathing.
4. Residents who used scrapwood from the Southernwood Piedmont site in their woodburning.

It's why Singleton considers her risk of exposure likely.

"I just got from out there in 2013, and I had been out there ever since 1950, so that's a long time, ain't it?" Singleton said.

"You cannot tell us we have not been suffering for this long," Maxine Baez said

Baez was born and raised in Hyde. She says she's battled lupus, respiratory problems, and lumps that only doctors could remove.

"I ain't healed yet," Baez said. "I done had two surgeries. One in my brain, one in my heart. So you going to tell me that and then you can't tell me where it come from?"

We posed a similar question to the District 2 Commissioner.

"There were places with contaminated soil, unsafe water, there were signs up that said, 'Caution, playing in ditches may be hazardous to your health,'" we asked. "How was that acceptable for citizens?"

"Well, you had a sign that tells you to stay out of it, that's the first thing." He continued, "Plus, in our community we have a lot of ditches throughout the whole city."

But, the ditches were not the source of the problem -- the industrial areas surrounding Hyde were the problem.

By 1995, The Environmental Protection Division of Georgia DNR ordered contamination clean up of the Goldberg Brothers Salavage Yard. The EPA came in and found Southerwood Piedmont contaminated. Thermal Ceramics and Richmond Recycling were also deemed hazardous sites by the EPD.

It's why Commissioner Williams claims the city has done it's part to help Hyde. Adding, the city's responsibility does not go further because the contamination was at the fault of private companies, not Augusta.

"What more can we do? We took you out, we gave you a good foundation," Williams countered. "I have issues with the 'government not doing this.' We have a responsibility as individuals, you know? If it was all that bad, you should have been raising sand for years about it."

For years, neighbors were raising sand. DPH documents from 1996 show that officials documented neighbors' testimonies of diseases, bodily issues, and other health complaints.

Still, options felt limited.

To move to a new house with government money, families had to do house matches. For example, if a homeowner live in a 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom house, they first had to find that same kind of house and wait to see if the government approved the match.

And waiting is all too familiar to Hyde. And the thing about waiting is that you lose both time and patience.

"A lot of hurt, and a lot of disappointment," Baez yelled. "A lot of people died and didn't reach no goal."

She's right -- a lot of people seemed to die in Hyde Park. Our I-Team tracked 24 deaths, in the last four years alone, families and friends say were related to cancers.

Rewind to the 90's, county health department records show 180 cancer deaths in Hyde Park by then.

The scars don't tell the full story, the conflicting studies don't give all the answers, the years don't heal the concerns, but the poison of injustice -- it's something Hyde Park has been dying to prove.

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