Editor’s note: Each year, the Bladen Journal staff takes on the tedious task of sifting through the newspaper’s pages to find the local stories with the most impact on Bladen County. The results, as well as the ranking for the final list, is a subjective look at what shaped your county over the course of 2017. Some will agree, some will certainly disagree — but we hope the Top 10 that follows, along with several honorable mentions, will at least allow you to remember some of the highlights.
The biggest one — GenX
Dominating local news and even receiving national attention is the ongoing controversy over GenX, an emerging contaminant emitted from the DuPont subsidiary Chemours, located along the Bladen-Cumberland counties line. The compound literally came under the microscope after two 2016 publications by N.C. State University Professor Detlef Knappe showing elevated levels of a perflourinated compound in the drinking water along the Cape Fear River.
In June 2017, the government got involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency measured more than 720 parts per trillion of GenX in the finished water delivered to properties serviced by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Testing done by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality verified a group of toxins, including GenX, released from the plant have contaminated the water supply from the Cape Fear River.
Testing on private wells began in the fall, and thus far, dozens private wells have been found to have GenX levels above the state’s health goal of 140 parts per trillion. Testing is currently underway, and DEQ has said it will continue expanding the testing radius until all it reaches a point where all the wells are within the state’s health goal.
Chemours’ legal troubles began in October. On Oct. 3, Wilmington resident Brent Nix filed a class action lawsuit, with James Scott Farrin as counsel, in federal court seeking punitive damages and compensation from the DuPont company, as well as funds for a monitoring program to detect early forms of disease. The same firm filed another class action lawsuit Oct. 20 on behalf of Roger Morton and the people of Brunswick County who get their water from the Northwest Treatment Plant. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority followed suit in federal court on Oct. 17, alleging “willful and wanton” behavior by Chemours, and Brunswick County compounded the company’s legal problems by filing suit Oct 31. to recover costs of investigation and treatment of the compound.
In the midst of all the October lawsuits, Chemours experienced a spill and neglected to report it to DEQ. The latter’s own testing revealed elevated levels of GenX in November, and the company confessed when confronted. The move prompted outrage in multiple counties, with people calling for harsher punishment than DEQ’s November decision to revoke Chemours’ wastewater permit.
The company has been woefully silent with local media, only going public on national television and disappointing locals who wanted to hear the company own up to its mistakes. A fall meeting with Bladen County leaders was held behind closed doors, and both parties kept the details quiet.
Even more people began to take notice in November, when testing showed elevated levels of GenX in the lake in Bladen County’s Camp Dixie and in Marshwood Lake north of Chemours. Levels six times the state’s health goal in the spring-fed lake upstream from the plant has many wondering if the contamination is airborne. Residents who previously thought the problem contained in one part of the county were left wondering how far airborne contaminants may travel.
In November, researchers from North Carolina State University received a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study GenX. They are hoping to learn its effects on the human body as well as how it is transmitted.
Labelled an “emerging contaminant,” little is known about GenX, and it carried no safety regulation standards until 2017. The EPA gave DuPont the green light in 2009 to manufacture GenX, but noted it appeared to demonstrate many of the same risks as the compound it replaced, one that belonged to the C8 family of chemicals, known carcinogens. GenX has been linked to cancers in animals.
DuPont recently settled a class action lawsuit for $671 million for knowingly releasing C8 into Ohio rivers and streams.
No. 2: Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy wins national title
Sneaking in at No. 2 is a feat worthy of more attention than it received — Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy winning the title of the nation’s top drill team. Not only was the school named “best in the nation,” but it made history in doing so.
In March, cadets from PRBLA travelled to Jacksonville, Fla. to participate in the General John J. Pershing Memorial Drill Competition. The Academy competed against 23 other units and was one of only two Blackjack (high school) units. All other groups were from universities like Clemson, Kansas State, Bowling Green State, and four-time consecutive reigning champion Toledo (Ohio) State.
“The competition was tough, because you are going up against the best drillers on that college’s campus,” said Lt. Col. Carl Lloyd, commander of cadets at PRBLA. “You are also talking about dedicated and focused young men and women who will soon become officers in our nation’s military.”
For the 100 years the competition has been held, colleges and universities have dominated it. No high school drill team has ever won the competition. Until this year.
“Any time you win Nationals, it makes you a part of something special. You join a select fraternity,” Lloyd commented. “Beating great schools like Clemson gives you a shot in the arm. It lets you know that you can compete with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
The meet consisted of seven events scored by representatives from the Naval Air Station Jacksonville. In Regulation events, which included Regulation Platoon and Regulation Squad Armed, the team was required to commit a sequence to memory and execute the movements in a specific order. Exhibition events — Exhibition Platoon Armed, Exhibition Squad Armed, Exhibition Duet, and Exhibition Individual — required teams to make up their own routines, which were judged on creativity, precision, and level of difficulty. The Color Guard competition rounded out the events.
The John L. Foye Drill Team from Paul R. Brown brought home several awards. In addition to winning the overall competition, the group won second place in Color Guard, commanded by Iyanna McAllister, and second place in Regulation Squad Armed, under the command of Maria Baza. Cadet Elijah Hayes took third place in Exhibition Individual. Points from all seven events were used to determine the overall winner.
“For the school, it’s huge, because little Paul R. Brown is now known for its drill team,” Lloyd remarked. “It has given the cadets motivation to start getting ready for next year. They now know all those college students are gunning for them.”
No. 3: Opioids
Exceeded in interest only by GenX this year — at least on a sustained basis — has been the the focus of the county on the growing opioid problem. After the release of a Castlight study naming four N.C. cities — Wilmington and Fayetteville being two of them — as the nation’s worst cities for opioid abuse, attention across the state turned to the problem on a large scale, at the same time it was starting to come under the national microscope.
In Bladen County, at the prompting of the county commissioners, a task force was formed to address the epidemic. Invited to the meeting were County Commissioners Charles Peterson, Ray Britt, and Russell Priest; county manager Greg Martin; Sheriff Jim McVicker and narcotics officer Richard Allen; Health and Human Services Director David Howard; Bladen Baptist associational missionary David Foster and Good News Baptist Church pastor Larry Hayes; Assistant District Attorney Quentin McGee; Bladen Journal editor W. Curt Vincent; Eastpointe representatives; Robert Heavenridge of Bladen County Schools; and Sondra Guyton of Bladen Community College. A number of people have joined the task force since its inception.
“As you know, this nationwide epidemic is a significant health problem that affects our citizens and neighbors without regard to age or race,” Peterson said. “We’re taking this matter seriously, and Bladen County commissioners are willing to take a leadership role in engaging our local leaders and planning what to do.”
Before any action could be taken, the problem had to be outlined. According to the N.C. Department of Health, Bladen County ranks 79th in the state — with one being the best — in terms of the number of prescriptions written per resident. In 2016, approximately 101 pills were prescribed per Mother County resident.
Those numbers, however, take into account the number of pills prescribed for genuine need, including post-operative recuperation, chronic conditions like back pain, and debilitating diseases such as cancer, as well as the people abusing prescriptions. The problem labelled the opioid epidemic is with the latter. While Castlight’s study did not address Bladen County, a Nov. 17 Bladen Journal article posited a fair estimate may be obtained by averaging the percentage of abusers in Fayetteville with the percentage in Wilmington, a number that would indicate 9.8 percent of Bladen County’s population, or 3,448 people, are abusing opioids.
“We are definitely on the high side, and this is a very serious issue,” Martin said at the first meeting.
The Bladen Journal did a series of articles in October and November shining the light on some of the issues. Doyle and Joyce Owen shared their story of the death of their son Brandon; a Bladen County health provider admitted the health community has turned a blind eye to the problem for profit; the rise of the problem was looked into; leaders talked about how the problem affects everyone; previous and ongoing efforts to address the problem were outlined; and the Bladen Journal looked at the what opioids are and why they’re so dangerous, the elderly becoming drug dealers, and the problem with prostitution among women, as well as the home the Bladen Baptist Association has that could be used to combat the problem.
The forums are ongoing, with the next one scheduled for mid-January, 2018.
No. 4: A new detention center
The year 2017 witnessed the dedication of Bladen County’s newest detention center, a 62,333-square-foot facility located on Smith Circle in Elizabethtown.
The jail is the culmination of decades of work. Land for the Center was purchased more than three decades ago, but prompting by District Court Judge Douglas Sasser got the ball rolling several years ago.
“The county commissioners could have taken the cheapest way out, but instead created a facility for the incarceration of inmates and offices for the Sheriff’s Office that will meet the needs of this county for many years to come,” Sasser told guests at the dedication ceremony.
Moseley Architects began designing the facility in 2013, and W.M. Jordan/Bordeaux Joint Venture was selected as a construction manager in 2015. The final cost of the project was $16,615,275. It is considered to be one of the highest-tech detention facilities that exists.
County Chairman Charles Ray Peterson told the crowd the new facility was “sorely needed.”
“It’s always hard to spend $19 or $20 million of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “But I appreciate the support of the public.”
The building officially has space for 250 beds, and county leaders have expressed a desire for the detention center to be used to house federal prisoners or those from surrounding counties — who would pay the county to house their prisoners — in order to recoup some of the cost of the facility.
At the front of the structure stands a memorial to fallen Bladen County officers, a special project for Sheriff Jim McVicker and the Bladen County Law Enforcement Officers’ Association.
The new building replaces a jail built in 1965 and a Sheriff’s Office utilized since 1947.
No. 5: Smithfield expansion
Two major announcements came out this year concerning one of Bladen County’s largest taxpayers — Smithfield Foods.
In May, the company announced it would be investing more than $45 million in the Tar Heel facility, a revelation that was followed in September with the announcement of an additional $100 million expansion. Together, the two announcements will mean 280 more jobs in the Mother County, as well as employment opportunities with Smithfield’s logistics partner.
The announcements were good news to Chuck Heustess, Bladen County’s economic development director.
“This is really big for (Bladen County),” he said. “The total addition of jobs says 280, but I think it will be more than that.”
The two projects include expanding the blast cell cold storage capabilities — a move that will increase the facility’s capacity by 140 million pounds — and constructing a new distribution center.
“This expansion reflects the promising new era we’re experiencing at Smithfield,” said Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer for Smithfield Foods. “It supports our continued growth and helps us better serve our customers by providing additional capacity and optimizing our distribution footprint.”
Smithfield began construction of the new distribution center in September. When complete, the center will be 500,000 square feet with 47,000 pallet positions.
Both projects will be complete in fall, 2018.
Smithfield’s Tar Heel facility is the largest pork processing plant in the world, employing nearly 5,000 people and processing more than 30,000 hogs each day.
No. 6: Party switches
Trumping this year’s municipal elections in November came the headline-making news that two Bladen County officials were switching political parties.
At the end of October, N.C. House Rep. William Brisson and Bladen County Commissioner Charles Ray Peterson filed paperwork at the Bladen County Board of Elections to switch their affiliations from Democrat to Republican.
“As an admitted conservative, I cannot continue to be part of today’s liberal Democrat Party,” Brisson said, adding the move would help him work with greater success for the three counties he represents.
Brisson — a Dublin native — represents District 22, which encompasses portions of Bladen, Sampson, and Johnston counties. In his long tenure in the House, Brisson has voted with the Republican Party on a majority of budget-related bills and votes 92 percent of the time overall with the Republican Party.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said the Democratic party “remains committed to fighting for every seat possible in order to retake the majority by 2020.”
Brisson’s switch increased the GOP majority to 75-45 in the N.C. House.
While Brisson’s change only gave more weight to the Republican side of the scale, Peterson’s switch meant a shift in balance on the Board of Commissioners. The nine-member board was previously tilted to the Democratic side, but Peterson’s change to red means GOPs now hold a 5-4 majority.
“I’ve been a lifelong Democrat,” said Peterson. “I feel like it’s time for me to take a new direction. I’ve been faithful in the past … and when it comes time to support (voters), nothing has changed as far as the citizens of Bladen County go.”
No. 7: Round and round
Officials with the N.C. Department of Transportation and local school officials were on opposite sides of the street in June, when Bladen County learned of DOT’s plans to construct a roundabout at the intersection of N.C. 41 and N.C. 410.
Though the slowdown will not be constructed for some time, DOT began the transition by instituting a four-way stop at the intersection, which lies just west of Bladen Community College and north of West Bladen High School.
The announcement and subsequent construction work prompted outrage on social media by residents, many of whom held the same position as West Bladen Principal Peggy Hester.
“I don’t like it, and I’m sure there are a lot of parents who don’t like it either,” said Hester. “We just have so many new and young drivers in that area, between the high school and Bladen Community College, it doesn’t make sense. A four-way stop will create a hazard, and so will the roundabout.”
According to Drew Cox, NCDOT district engineer, the idea to install a roundabout at the location was based on an incident history that showed “frequent accidents” in that area.
“There were 31 accidents within a five-year period at that location,” Cox said. “None were fatal, fortunately, but this has been something we’ve studied over the past five or six years.”
NCDOT maintains roundabouts, which are becoming more and more common across the state, have proven to be successful. Cox admitted a slight increase would be seen initially, but said the change will eventually result in a 68 percent reduction in accidents.
The current four-way stop is expected to be converted to a roundabout in late 2018 or early- to mid-2019.
No. 8: Centennial celebration
A Bladen County icon turned 100 this year, and its sentinels spent the year celebrating. The Bladenboro Historical Building, formerly the Farm Life School, was built in 1917. In its heyday, the school brought thousands of students from all over the East Coast to learn about the farming industry and was a major reason for the thriving railroad, businesses, and industries in town.
Since that time, the school has undergone several transformations to get it to its current state. Classrooms are now museums, and the building houses a common area utilized for community gatherings. Housed in the building are museums dedicated to geneology, the military, town history, agriculture, the old Bladenboro High School, and local crafts.
The Bladenboro Historical Society culminated the centennial celebration with its annual Fun Day, held on the Historical Building property. Witnessing a record turnout for the 25th annual event, the day was an step back into the time before commercial vendors and mechanical rides. A water bucket challenge, basketball, corn hole, a corn shucking contest, and live music were just some of the activities that allowed guests to enjoy looking back.
No. 9: Consolidation forums
As part of its ongoing attempt to address consolidation, the Bladen County Board of Education held a series of community forums in May. Taking place over the course of two weeks in Tar Heel, Clarkton, East Arcadia, and Elizabethtown, the forums covered the topics of declining enrollment in the school system, rising costs of construction, the age of existing facilitites, and class size. Staff and board members laid out with facts and figures the need facing the district. After the presentation, questions submitted in writing by guests were addressed by the board.
The forums received mixed reviews. Some guests praised the format, saying they appreciated being able to submit questions anonymously in writing, others saying written queries didn’t allow for the back-and-forth discussions they were anticipating.
Attendance at the forums started strong and gradually waned. Approximately 150 guests turned out in Tar Heel; by Clarkton, the number had dropped to around 80; and a much smaller number of people turned out for each of the remaining two forums. Board chair Vincent Rozer attended all four forums, as did Chris Clark, Gary Rhoda, and Glenn McKoy. Dennis Edwards and Roger Carroll were present for three forums, and Alan West attended one. Neither Berry Lewis nor Tim Benton attended any of the four forums.
No. 10: End of Peanut Fest?
An air of sadness hung over the normally festive crowd at this year’s Peanut Festival in Dublin, when, in September, rumors began flying that this year’s festival was the last. For 25 years, Donnie and Bobbie Todd have spearheaded the effort, but the duo but announced this fall they are hanging up their hats after September, stating “it’s time to move on.” Peanut Festival Committee members voted overwhelmingly to end the annual event, but guests mourned the finale and stated a desire to see it continue.
— Pork & Beats Festival: While one festival may have seen its end, another saw its inception. November marked the inaugural Pork & Beats Festival in Elizabethtown, an event organizers are hoping to make an annual occurence.
— MasterFried closes: In February, Bladen County diners learned a local favorite — MasterFried — had closed its doors. While owner Elizabeth Crowley told the Bladen Journal in February she would “likely” sell, the future of the beloved restaurant is still uncertain and remains a hot topic among its devoted patrons.
— Black River state park: In September, the N.C. State Parks system kicked off a series of community forums in Bladen County, held for the purpose of determining the feasibility of establishing a state park along the Black River. Local opposition was strong, primarily among residents who live in the area and object to any development that would bring visitors. A decision on the matter is due in the spring.
— Solar eclipse: A solar eclipse brought most of the nation to a standstill in August, when, for the first time in almost 100 years, the event was visible from every state. Bladen County was near the path of totality but saw only 94 percent coverage.
— Education: Some sweeping changes took place this year in education. Bladen County’s newest charter school — Emereau — was constructed off Airport Road and opened in August with more than 300 students. The exodus of hundreds of students from Bladen County Schools – 90 of whom were unaccounted for — was more than district staff anticipated, prompting board members to move $700,000 from local funds to cover this year’s expenditures.
— Tar Heel bridge: June’s sun shone down in Tar Heel when the N.C. Department of Transportation dedicated the new bridge across the Cape Fear River as the David B. Melvin Bridge. Melvin, a resident of both Tar Heel and White Oak, manually skippered the ferry across the river in the mid 1900s.
— Joseph Sledge gets $4 million: In September, the Bladen County Commissioners voted 7-2 to offer Joseph Sledge $4 million for his wrongful conviction. Sledge spent 40 years in prison for two Bladen County murders but was freed based on DNA evidence a few years ago.
— Former B’boro manager/administrator investigated: Former Bladenboro manager/adminsitrator Delane Jackson came under scrutiny by the State Bureau of Investigation for for nearly one- half million dollars the town paid to a company owned by Jackson while he was town manager. The matter is still under investigation.
— BCC’s 50th anniversary: Bladen Community College, founded in October 1967, celebrated 50 years of post-secondary education in the Mother County. The institution highlighted the milestone with concerts, a musical, guest speakers, and other special events.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.