PORTSMOUTH, Va.—Mary Dibbons had never heard of Peck Iron and Metal, an abandoned scrap yard located about a half-mile from the Cradock neighborhood where she’s lived her entire life. And she’s not sure what a Superfund site is.
But she does know she shouldn’t eat fish from the local creek.
Twice a day, when the tide comes in, Paradise Creek rises over its banks onto the now-vacant Peck Iron and Metal Superfund Site, one of America’s worst toxic waste dumps. Along the way, its waters wash industrial toxins, dangerous metals and radioactive materials downstream and beyond, into Cradock’s yards, streets and apartments.
The contamination has gone on for decades, and the federal government—well aware of the threat it poses to Cradock—still has no approved plans to clean it up. When told about this, Dibbons, 38, was not surprised.
“If they aren’t doing anything to fix the rest of the country, what makes you think they care about Cradock?” she said.
An investigation by students at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University shows that Cradock, a national historical district founded in 1918 as a planned community, is threatened by deadly chemicals and regulatory delay.
The investigation, based on a review of hundreds of pages of public records and interviews with government officials, environmental activists and other experts, found that the EPA has yet to approve a final cleanup plan, 13 years after the site was added to the National Priorities List, its grouping of the nation’s most contaminated sites. The EPA acknowledges “data gaps” that may underestimate the potential for human harm and reports unacceptable levels of PCBs in fish and shellfish in Paradise Creek, the investigation shows.
The Cradock neighborhood, south of downtown Portsmouth, covers more than 300 acres between Victory Boulevard, George Washington Highway and Paradise Creek. It is home to about 2,500 residents, about half of whom are Black.
The EPA acknowledges that high levels of a sticky, radioactive substance called cobalt, which causes asthma, is concentrated in wetland sediments on the Cradock side of Paradise Creek. In 2017, the EPA determined that storm surges, which cause flooding, create “significant health risks” from cobalt in the surface soil of the Cradock community itself. After further testing in 2021, the EPA determined cobalt was not a threat to residents.
In addition, the EPA said, potential risks to Cradock residents from chromium levels may be underestimated. Chromium is a cancer-causing agent that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
The EPA also has concluded that the abandoned Peck plant itself creates “significant health risks” for maintenance workers or recreational users who venture into the fenced area—including exposure to radiation and contaminants in the groundwater, surface water and soil. Additionally, the 33-acre abandoned plant poses a risk for “potential future industrial and residential uses,” said Debra Rossi, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the site.
However, the EPA has found that adults in the Cradock community are not at an “unacceptable risk” because they do not go into the contaminated area and they drink water provided by the city, even though several wells in the neighborhood access polluted groundwater.
It is not possible to evaluate toxic exposure to former workers on the site, but the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) concluded it “may have been significant.”
Climate change could worsen the potential health threats to the community. A 2019 analysis of Superfund sites by the Government Accountability Office cited Peck Iron and Metal as among 945 Superfund sites across the country that are vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and sea level rise, which are intensifying as the planet warms.
The EPA acknowledges “data gaps” from its inspection of the abandoned Peck site may underestimate potential harm to humans, because there have been no thorough assessments of what can happen if skin is exposed to the polluted water.
Also, there has been limited testing of game fish tissues, which has shown that unacceptable levels of PCBs have infiltrated fish and shellfish in Paradise Creek from Cradock to the Elizabeth River.
“When people move here, they aren’t aware of the environmental issues that are risks to them,” said Bracey Parr, president of the Cradock Civic League.
A Cluster of Superfund Sites
Cradock exemplifies the disproportionate harms suffered by communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, often disenfranchised by a lack of economic clout and political savvy, located in close proximity to Superfund sites and other polluting facilities.
In addition to the Peck site, there are three other Superfund sites in Portsmouth located in lower-income communities. In various stages of cleanup, they include:
- Abex Corp., a former brass and bronze foundry, which operated smelting furnaces that caused soil contamination. It became a Superfund in 1980.
- Atlantic Wood Industries, a 50-acre waterfront site that caused contamination through its use of creosote and other chemicals. Additionally, the Navy leased part of the site to dispose of its waste, adding to the contamination. It became a Superfund site in 1990.
- The Norfolk Naval Shipyard, an active Navy facility that repairs, overhauls and modernizes the fleet. The shipyard conducts metal, painting and repair activities on site that have caused contamination in the soil, sediment, surface and groundwater. It was added to the Superfund list in 1999.
- A fourth site, St. Juliens Creek Navy Annex, once an ordnance and material storage Navy facility near Cradock, is just over the Portsmouth city line in Chesapeake. The facility was closed in 1969 when operations moved to the Navy Weapons Station in Yorktown. It was added to the Superfund site list in 2000.
“If you look at the Superfund sites in Hampton Roads, four of them are all south of [Interstate] 264,” Parr said. “It all has to do with the Navy.”
Indeed, Hampton Roads has been called “the heart of Superfund Country” by several Virginia newspapers because numerous military installations located here are responsible for decades of toxic waste. A third of Virginia’s 36 sites are located in Hampton Roads, most related to the military.
State officials say it is not possible to fully ascertain health risks from the sites, including Peck. But Hampton Roads waterways have some of the highest levels of PCBs and other suspected carcinogens in the country. And, Portsmouth has the highest rates for cancer deaths and asthma in Virginia, according to a three-part series in The Virginian-Pilot in 2012.
“The district, and Portsmouth in particular, have far more than their fair share of legacy pollution,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, the Democratic congressman who has represented the region since 1993. “In Hampton Roads, like the rest of the country, this pollution disproportionately harms communities of color.”
Portsmouth also has the highest rate of breast cancer and the highest death rate from colon cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health, which published “The Virginia Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan” in 2012. In Portsmouth, Black men die of prostate cancer at nearly four times the rate of white men, according to a 2021 news report by The Virginian-Pilot. Some question whether the concentrated number of Superfund sites in the city may be to blame.
“Portsmouth has several Superfund sites that surround Black communities, and it is our children suffering from these toxic chemicals,” said Lynn Godfrey, community outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club in Hampton Roads.
Living close to a Superfund Site cuts life expectancy by up to 15 months, according to a study published in Nature Communications, a scientific journal focused on nature research.
Pregnant women have a 20 to 25 percent higher risk of having a child with congenital birth defects, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“You ask anybody in Portsmouth, even the health departments, they’ll tell you about the disparities, like breast cancer. This area, especially, has a lot of things like diabetes, heart disease, and other stuff,” said Parr, the Cradock Civic League president.
The Cradock neighborhood is just one of the neighborhoods affected by the Peck site. Nearly 11,000 people lived within a one-mile radius, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The majority, 6,034, are Black, while 4,003 are white. The number includes 1,146 children under the age of 6, 1,444 adults 65 years or older, and 2,414 females of child-bearing age, between 15-44 years old.
People of color and lower-income populations in Portsmouth are more likely to live near a Superfund site than 99 percent of the U.S., according to the EPA’s 2020 EJScreen Report, an environmental mapping program that provides data to the federal government.
“You typically don’t see a lot of these Superfund sites popping up in white neighborhoods,” said Joe Rieger of the Elizabeth River Project, an environmental advocacy group. “You see white communities pushing communities of color into these areas, or you see the development of industrial sites in communities of color.”
A Near Perfect Superfund Score
Paradise Creek is far from the paradise envisioned in 1918 when Cradock was designed to house white workers at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Back then, the government imagined families splashing in the water, fishing, crabbing and gathering oysters.
More than 100 years later, the creek and its surroundings are battling environmental challenges caused by the industries that cropped up around the nation’s oldest Navy shipyard since it was established in 1767.
Peck was one of those companies. From more than 50 years, until 1999, the yard’s owner purchased naval vessels that were scrapped by the Department of Defense, as well as machine guns and munitions, and shredded them. It also shredded and recycled household appliances, cars and transformers containing PCBs, which were spilled into the ground.
In 2009, the site was added to the Superfund list as part of the National Priorities List, which includes the most hazardous toxic waste sites in the U.S. While state and federal officials have known for decades about the toxins, no cleanup has been approved as of yet, according to the EPA. The agency on Wednesday reopened the public comment period for a Proposed Remedial Action Plan for the site, through Sept. 23.
In 2018, the EPA concluded that contaminants were being transported downstream toward the Elizabeth River and across Paradise Creek to Cradock. Yet, the EPA has never officially told the residents of Cradock about any health risks. That is only required once a cleanup feasibility plan is approved. Expected by late 2021, that plan was delayed until 2022, according to the EPA.
The abandoned plant is still accessible from the intersection of Elm Avenue and Victory Boulevard, adjacent to the naval shipyard. Though marked with “No Trespassing” signs, EPA reports note the fencing is failing, making it possible to enter the site. Children’s bicycles and several trespassers were observed on the site during EPA inspections and site visits in 2012 where radioactive areas are active and dangerous. On a recent tour, Ruth Scharr, the agency’s on-scene coordinator, pointed out several gaps in the fence that she said needed to be repaired to keep trespassers out.
“The EPA is getting ready to do removal of the highest contamination of radionuclides only because the fence along the property continues to fall down. We don’t know if anyone is getting on site,” said Courtney Marquette, remedial site manager from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. “In the event that kids are coming on site, they don’t want them to play in the areas where there is higher radiation.”
In January 2022, the EPA removed five 5-gallon drums of radioactive materials from the site and made some repairs to fences. There is evidence that radioactive materials had already leached into groundwater and Paradise Creek.
Currently, the EPA has scored the Peck site at 97.05 out of 100 for “surface water migration pathways,” meaning that toxins are carried off site into the creek, according to a 2009 Hazard Ranking System (HRS) report. Because flooding already put the site on the Superfund list, no scoring was done for toxins in the air or soil.
The human food chain threat, which comes from eating contaminated fish and seafood, was rated at 42.66 out of 100. Any score over 28 in any of these categories puts a Superfund site on the National Priorities List. “Once a contaminant becomes available in the water, it accumulates through the food web. That’s called bioaccumulation, and it magnifies each time it is consumed,” Marquette said. “Once a larger fish consumes it, like a catfish, it’s already multiplied so much. By the time we eat it, it accumulates even more. So, if we were to eat 15 catfish a month, that’s a lot of accumulation in our tissues.”
In fair weather, people often fish below the Victory Boulevard Bridge, and kayakers use the waterways. “I’ve seen people fishing at Victory Boulevard Bridge,” said Rieger, of the Elizabeth River Project. “Those fish are going to have higher levels.”
Jeremiah Ketels, a firearms instructor for the military, as well as a pastor of the Anchor Baptist Church in the Cradock community, agreed. “I wouldn’t eat anything out of this area because of what’s contaminated in it,” said Ketels.
Ketels said residents of Cradock are either unaware of the pollution or don’t find it as threatening to their safety as the area’s crime, which ranges from gang warfare to drug dealing, prostitution and murder. Ketels said his biggest fear is that his children find “blunts, roaches and needles” walking through the neighborhood.
The EPA’s Extremely Slow Cleanup Process
On a cloudy day earlier this year, a tall man in a neon yellow T-shirt stood on the busy Victory Boulevard Bridge that crosses Paradise Creek about halfway between Cradock and the Elizabeth River. The bridge and its underpass are littered with beer cans, candy wrappers and fishing lines. But David Koubsky, a long-time employee of the Elizabeth River Project, and now a contractor for The Living River Trust, is looking past the trash, out onto a picturesque wetlands and waterways he has been working to clean up for decades.
“We just want to improve the sediment quality of Paradise Creek,” Koubsky said. “It will never be pristine, but we can make it healthier.”
On this project, he is overseeing the dredging of the lower part of Paradise Creek to remove PCBs near the Paradise Creek Nature Park, a 40-acre waterfront park being restored by the Elizabeth River Project.
The PCBs could be from the Peck site or the toxic Norfolk Naval Shipyard immediately across from where Koubsky stood. It’s impossible to uncover where the toxic mix of pollutants came from, given that there have been multiple industrial sites along the Paradise Creek since the 1900s, Koubsky said.
“This neighborhood was founded back during a time when people had to work for factories to feed their children. This factory along with others provided a job opportunity that was right next to the neighborhood,” Koubsky said.
PCBs were used from 1929 until banned by the EPA in 1977. Because of their ability to prevent fires, PCBs were ubiquitous in Navy ships and facilities. An unintended consequence is that they stay in the environment forever—unless they are cleaned up.
“PCBs were a great oil,” Koubsky said. “It could take really high temperatures and wouldn’t overheat. Industries that had high-heat environments liked to lubricate their stuff with PCBs because it worked better than petroleum.”
PCBs can cycle between air, water and soil, and have a tendency to be insoluble, meaning that they do not absorb into water, but can be easily consumed by wildlife such as fish.
“Scrappers would take metal to a place like Peck, and Peck would take it. What they would do next is shred it, and as they do so, they drain any of the liquids that are inside of it. They have big shredders, kind of like massive wood chippers, so they throw refrigerators in there,” Koubsky said.
Once the metals were shredded, they were shipped to mills and foundries because it was less expensive than creating new metals from ore.
The park project that Koubsky manages shows that it is possible to conduct some cleanup and restoration, which can make a difference in the surrounding communities. Before the project began, the water south of Cradock, adjacent to the park, was rated level D—not safe for consumption or swimming—by the Elizabeth River Project. Since the restoration, its rating has improved. It is now rated a C-plus.
Unlike Koubsky’s project, the EPA Superfund cleanup process is extremely slow. First, the site must be scored to determine the threat level to humans. Next, a remedial investigation—often taking years—determines the levels of toxins. Then a study is done to determine clean-up options. Public input is sought, and finally, remediation begins. This can take decades and could cost as much as $100 million, according to a 2014 report by The Roanoke Times.
Groundwater cleanups, like the one at the Peck plant, are considered “long-term action” sites, which can take decades to clean.
“It is a slow process,” said Marquette, of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, including deciding “whether to dig everything up and take it off site, which would be hundreds if not thousands of truck loads going back and forth to landfills, or leave it all on site and cap it. Those are the types of determinations we would make.”
The End of the American Dream
Plant owner B. David Peck inherited the recycling center from his father and was stunned when government officials walked into it one day in 2000, he said, and declared it an “imminent danger.” That moment, he said, ended a family legacy of believing that with hard work and loyalty one can achieve the American Dream.
His story began in 1907, when his grandparents, Eva and Samuel Pecker, arrived in America from Kiev, then the capital of Ukraine. They were among thousands of Jews fleeing religious persecution. Samuel, 27, and Eva, 26 and pregnant, already had a 6-month-old and two toddlers. They were bound for Eva’s parents’ home in Baltimore, according to a family history website.
On July 9, 1924, Samuel, then 40, died in an accident when a wall fell, burying him beneath tons of brick and mortar. “Although impoverished, without influence and without a father, the brothers and sisters remained close,” according to the stories of Peck’s Family.
Samuel’s sons made their living by going to “a nearby bakery at 4:30 a.m. to pick up doughnuts to sell to employees at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.” Family gatherings included cards, canasta or mahjong. They served on synagogue and Jewish boards together and even vacationed together. At Passover, everyone gathered at their grandmother’s house where the table stretched from the dining room into the living room.
At some point, the family shortened their name to Peck. B. David Peck’s father, Julius, moved to Portsmouth and brought the family to join him. On Aug. 23, 1946, the brothers and brothers-in-law formed Peck Iron and Metal Company, with branches in Portsmouth and Richmond. They worked long hours, family members recalled.
The family flourished.
By the late 1940s, family members were regulars at the Suburban Country Club in Portsmouth. After its opening in 1948, the boys spent their summers at Camp Skylemar in Maine, continuing this tradition for several generations. “Being a Peck relative was and still is like being part of a dynasty,” the website said of the camp experience.
Born in 1937, B. David Peck graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth in 1955. Eventually, he inherited the Peck Iron and Metal plant, employing hundreds of unskilled immigrants who were trying to obtain their own American dream.
‘All These Toxins’
Today, Peck says he does not have the money to pay for the cost of cleaning the site, and he blames the EPA. When the site was identified in the 1990s, he cooperated with state officials in the DEQ’s Virginia Voluntary Remediation Program, which would have helped him pay for the costs. The Peck plant closed in 1999.
Within three years, Peck was negotiating with the Elizabeth River Project to take over the land and restore it with $30,000 to $40,000 in grants. A year later, Peck gave ERP six acres for a conservation easement to restore wetlands and donated 40 acres for the Paradise Creek Nature Park. Peck still owns the 33-acre U-shaped scrap yard property at 3850 Elm Avenue.
Meanwhile, environmental regulators were seeking soil samples to check for contaminants from automobile parts to petroleum products to PCBs in insulated wire and more. By 2004, reports had surfaced of PCBs, arsenic, chromium, lead and radioactive material, specifically radium-226 contained in luminous instrument dials and watch faces.
That March, Peck was told that he could obtain a government-sponsored Brownfield Remediation loan for $960,000, which would allow him to sell the land to a car recycling company.
Then, in July 2004, the EPA notified Peck that the PCB levels were too high for that plan. “At the last minute the EPA pulled it away from the state,” said Rieger, of the Elizabeth River Project.
By June 2005, Peck had notified the EPA he would stop conducting a PCB cleanup plan.
“That made him pretty angry, and then he just stopped engaging… A lot of the work we do is building trust, and that got lost,” Rieger said of the outcome.
Peck, who now lives in Richmond, said his company took tons of trash and hazardous material from the military after World War II, accepted transformers from huge electrical companies and paid cash for junk cars and used batteries.
Container trucks and small pickups lined up to drop off their junk. Rail cars hauled away the shredded materials. During the process, PCBs, lead, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, and other toxins leaked into the soil at the site.
Peck, who served 20 years in the Army, said he believed he was supporting his country and has been left with all the blame for the pollution at the plant site.
“All these toxins, PCBs and lead. It’s like a thunderbolt. It makes me seem like a monster,” he said.
Peck thinks the suppliers of the toxic materials, including the Department of Defense and large private energy companies, were responsible for the pollution and should help with the cleanup cost.
The former EPA director of Superfund Sites in the Great lakes Region, Bill Muno, believes the DOD bears some responsibility. “A lot of the contamination comes from the Department of Defense,” he said. The Virginia DEQ’s Marquette believes Peck thought he was doing good for the government by recycling its hazardous materials. “Well, Peck is broke, and I think that is partly why he is not responsible,” she said. “He took material from a lot of companies in the area. They paid him to take things away, and he could do whatever he wanted with it.”
Hope on the Horizon
Since 1980, 1,344 Superfund sites have been identified. In the 42 years since, just 447 sites have been cleaned up, most using taxes levied on oil and chemical companies. However, Congress did not renew the tax in 1995, causing the Superfund Trust Fund balance to drop from $4.7 billion in 1997 to $173 million in 2007. The start-rate for site cleanups then dropped by two thirds, according to a 2007 study by The Center for Public Integrity.
There may be some hope on the financial front, according to Rep. Scott.
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The recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act may offer an opportunity for Portsmouth because it imposes on import tax on petroleum that will be used to fund the Superfund program. Scott said it is possible the taxes could be used to pay for remediation of the Peck site.
Scott said that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed last year, included another $3.5 billion to remediate Superfund sites. “Together these proposals represent a major step forward for Portsmouth,” he said.
Today, the site looks like a wasteland, with deteriorating cinder block garages and buildings. Broken brick, glass, wood, asphalt and scrap metal litter the ground.
Peck, who served on the board of Norfolk State University and was active in state politics, said the site mirrors the state of his life after more than 20 years of battling the EPA.
“It’s been devastating,” Peck said in a telephone interview. “After all my public service, 20 years in the army, then thank you, I’m crucified.”
Peck believes he tried to do the right thing, but said the EPA mishandled the process, leaving the site where it is today. “The EPA then punished the owners of the property to this day by ignoring its obligation to respond to detailed objections raised at our meeting at their Philadelphia offices and on multiple conference calls,” Peck said.
Peck said EPA officials still have not reviewed detailed information he gave them about 16 different entities that were responsible for selling hazardous materials to his business. He does not believe justice has been done.
That may change. An EPA official confirmed that the agency has turned over a list of possible responsible entities, including the Department of Defense, to the Department of Justice for possible legal action.
“There is mismanagement and stupidity, and I’m punished for it. I’m helpless,” Peck said. “It’s cost so much money.”
Back in Cradock, the residents living in apartments on Kennedy Drive are still experiencing flooding from the toxic water in Paradise Creek, which runs in front of the complex.
The daughter of the landlord, April Strickland, has been living in Cradock for years and has seen firsthand how the Superfund site has affected the neighborhood. Her mother has a cancer attributable to pollution and April played in the toxic waters as a child.
Strickland said a few years ago a storm drain was installed in front of the complex to stop the flooding, but it has only made the problem worse.
“For the past 20 years we have received letters from the EPA Region 3 about remediation that is going on,” she said. “But I hope something actually changes soon.”
Contributors include Hampton University journalism students Tigist Ashaka, Sara Avery, Sherdell Baker, Sydney Broadnax, Kennedy Buck, Raven Harper, Morgan Harris, Noah Hogan, Adoria Jones, Kaden Perkins, Mikayla Roberts, Tenel Robinson, Winston Rogers, Jordan Sheppard, Sydney Shuler, Tyler Simon, Lauren Turman, Ciara White-Sparks, Jordin Wright and Brooklyn Young.