ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Millions of years after ancient oceans receded, the rolling dunes called the Sandhills offered well-drained soil and frost protection for what would become North Carolina's peach belt.
Many of those orchards have faded away, but their legacy haunts the people who claim the sandy soil. Their groundwater is contaminated by pesticides that may cause cancer.
Tests have found 117 tainted wells in Montgomery, Richmond and Moore counties in the past year, 77 of those at unsafe levels. The number continues to grow as alarmed residents have their water analyzed.
As public health officials scramble to deliver safe water to affected homes, well owners wonder what their clear, good-tasting well water has done to them.
Franklin Harper, a retired truck driver in Richmond County, recalls piling up and burning dead peach trees when he bought his 3 acres north of Rockingham 18 years ago.
"I would like to know who was liable for putting that stuff out here years ago and not telling anybody, because they knew it was toxic," Harper, 62, said this week.
Harper lives on a sandy ridge of former orchard land. And like most of his neighbors, he learned his well was contaminated only a few weeks agoHe read a local newspaper story about the toxic chemicals and asked for a test. Local officials, meanwhile, worry over how far and wide the contamination has spread.
Peach orchards grow on a modest 1,350 N.C. acres, but production in 1941 was twelve times greater. The chemicals now detected in groundwater were first used in the 1950s.
"What we don't know is whether this is the end of it," said Jim Haynes, the Richmond County manager.
The first of the tainted wells was found in Montgomery County late last year during a routine well test. Alarmed, state officials tested surrounding wells and found more contamination there and in Richmond County, to the south.
Contamination levels as high as 55 times the federal safe drinking-water standard have been detected.
Seventy-seven households, where concentrations were highest, have been told not to drink or cook with their well water. The chemicals have intimidating names: the pesticides dibromochloropropane, called DBCP, and 1,2-dichloropropane; and an associated chemical, 1,2,3-trichloropropane.
They were used to kill nematodes, parasites in soil that can damage the roots of peach trees. The federal government banned them as far back as 1977.