Robeson County residents battling proposal for private military training site

By Lisa Sorg

This story was originally published by NC Newsline.

Bombs in a swamp. 

A fraught piece of land ensnared in a family drama.

Separately, the issues stir enough conflict to employ a dozen lawyers.

Together, they could contaminate groundwater, creeks, rivers and ultimately drinking water supplies for an untold number of residents in southern Robeson County — and potentially South Carolina.

Alottabang, LLC, wants to operate an explosive ordnance disposal training facility for the military and police – essentially disarming and detonating bombs – on a portion of a 610-acre swamp land near Rowland and along the state line.

In addition to the training aspect, the purpose of the site, according to a permit application submitted to Robeson County, is to “relieve Defense Department ordnance management organizations with the difficult logistical problem of reducing unnecessary ammunition stockpiles.”

David A. Ricks of Melbourne, Florida, and Danny James Ricks of Fredericksburg, Virginia, are listed as owners of Alottabang, according to N.C. Secretary of State records. The filings describe Alottabang as a “land holding company.”

The Rickses own another company that is applying to Robeson County for a special use permit: STT Facilities, which provides “training facilities for emergency services.”

The Robeson County Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the project again at their June 5 meeting; a hearing was continued from earlier this month.

David Ricks runs several more enterprises in Florida: ARE Property Investments, Davcon Properties, Treasure Coast Wholesale Auctions, Southern Citrus and Produce, a fishing charter boat business and a grouting company, according to filings in that state.

The Rickses did not return two voicemail messages from NC Newsline.

Opposition is mounting against the project. An attorney for adjacent landowners, Rob Price of Lumberton, told NC Newsline that his clients are concerned about the potential devaluation of their property and noise from the explosions. “One man is a farmer and he doesn’t want his animals startled,” Price said.

The decibel level 1,000 feet from the “pad” — the site of the explosives training — would be 115 decibels, according to the permit application. The closest property line is roughly that distance, according to the permit application. That sound level is equivalent to a sandblaster or a very loud rock concert.

Another landowner wants to eventually hand down his property to his children. “How can they enjoy their time in nature if there’s bombing?” Price said.

Absent from the discussion is how the bombs would be transported to the site. That would likely occur by truck, since no rail line serves the property. Access is also limited to the South Carolina side, although an easement for that purpose is in dispute. The property is not accessible on the North Carolina side, including “by Robeson County emergency services,” the permit application reads.

Rowland town officials oppose it. However, since the property lies in unincorporated Robeson County, Rowland has no jurisdiction. Unincorporated land in Robeson is not zoned, but the land use class for the tract is “residential-agriculture.”

In South Carolina, the Dillon County Council voted to approve a resolution in opposition. Alan Schafer, who owns the tourist attraction, South of the Border, is also against it.

If the facility ultimately receives its permits, it would operate in an underserved community that already experiences serious illness. State data show that rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, infant and child mortality, and asthma are significantly higher than the state average in the two census block groups that include and abut the proposed facility. Those neighborhoods are 89% to 93% non-white and roughly two-thirds low-income.

Basemap: Robeson County GIS

Without more information about the weaponry involved, it’s difficult to predict the potential contamination. But previous studies at other training sites show that pollutants from the military weapons – lead, tungsten, arsenic, antimony and copper – can leach into the groundwater, creeks and ultimately, drinking water supplies.

Exposure to those contaminants, at various concentrations depending on the chemical, can harm human health and the environment, according to the EPA.

Tungsten has contaminated groundwater and soil at military weapons training sites, raising concerns about the chemical’s stability in the environment. According to the EPA, the contamination was severe enough that it resulted in the “suspension of tungsten/nylon bullets in some military applications.”

Other metals pose human health risks. Antimony exposure can cause lung inflammation, as well as heart and digestive problems. Chronic exposure to high levels of copper can result in liver damage. Lead is a known neurotoxin; arsenic, a carcinogen.

The behavior of the contaminants – how they move and interact with chemical properties of the soil and groundwater – are also specific to the geographic setting, according to a 2022 paper by the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center.

Most of the acreage in question is swampy, county records show, and is veined by Wilkinson and Shoe Heel Creeks. Those creeks flow into the Little Pee Dee River, which runs into South Carolina.

Ryan Emanuel is a hydrologist and associate professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He is also a Robeson County native and member of the Lumbee tribe. Emanuel said that the size of the property “suggests that a large amount of material could be handled, stored or processed here, increasing concerns about water contamination.”

While he’s not seen any detailed maps or well data from this specific area, Emanuel said once contaminants reach shallow groundwater in this part of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain, “they will flow readily toward the nearest river or stream.” That stream is Shoe Heel Creek.

“We also know that groundwater is relatively close to the surface across most of this site, during much of the time,” Emanuel told NC Newsline. “So if metals or other contaminants are mobile in soil water they will quickly reach — and pollute — the shallow groundwater that feeds Shoe Heel Creek.”

Soil type, for example, influences how metals migrate, break down or are absorbed by plants or aquatic life. Acidity and alkalinity can also play a role.

“The variety of geochemical conditions present across the training range domain makes it hard to identify any environmental conditions of soil characteristics that could be used to minimize the potential risks of a given metal,” the US Army paper reads. “There are few studies documenting the large-scale migration of metals from training ranges to groundwater or off-site contamination.”

The 610-acre tract, represented by the red outline, is predominantly swampland, indicated in green. Basemap: Robeson County GIS

The company has not applied to the state for environmental permits, according to a DEQ spokesperson.

If the activities affect any streams or wetlands within the property boundaries, Alottabang would be required to obtain a water quality permit, according to a DEQ spokesperson. And depending on the details of the operation, it could be subject to federal hazardous waste management rules. These rules are guided by the EPA’s “Energetic Hazardous Waste” program.

However, there are legal loopholes for certain uses of military munitions. Those used in training, research, development, testing or evaluation aren’t regulated as solid waste or hazardous waste. But if those weapons are used or fired and land off-range and “are not promptly rendered safe or retrieved,” then they could be regulated as waste.

Property has contentious ownership history

How Alottabang acquired the property, through two powerful families from the Anson County town of Polkton, is as odd as the company’s opaque plans for its use.

The 610 acres had long been owned by timber companies until 1986, when Cliff Martin Sr. and Hugh Efrid bought it, Robeson County Register of Deeds records show.

The Martins and the Efrids were scions in Polkton, as much as anyone can be a scion in such a small community. Cliff Martin, who died in 2004, served as the mayor for 46 years; part of U.S. 74 in Union County is named after him. Hugh Efrid was president of Polkton Manufacturing, a government contractor that made military uniforms.

By 2010, the mayor’s daughter, Jane Martin Blaine and son, Cliff Martin, Jr., also had a stake in the property with Efrid. After Efrid died, in 2011, M/E, LLC, a real estate company run by his son, Aaron Efrid — the “E” in M/E — purchased the property, according to Register of Deeds documents.

The “M” in M/E was Cliff Martin Jr., a real estate developer and a manager of mobile home parks. But in 2017 Martin, Jr. hit a rough patch. That’s when he was arrested by the FBI on drug charges involving cocaine and methamphetamine. Martin Jr. pleaded guilty the following year to conspiracy. He is scheduled to be released from prison this July.

Two years ago, Jane Martin Blaine sued Martin Jr., and M/E, LLC, in Anson County Superior Court over the property. A judge designated a third-party to sell  it at auction in 2021, property records show. (Aaron Efrid died last year.)

Land near Rowland ranges from $4,000 to $10,000 per acre, according to recent real estate listings. Alottabang won the bid. The price? Just $200,000 or $327 an acre.

This is one of several stories about environmental justice issues and cumulative pollution impacts in Robeson County. Funding for this project comes from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash