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Troubled water: Landfill trash poses hazard to Chapel Hill neighborhood
Environmental risks plague Rogers-Eubanks
 
Published Wednesday, March 27, 2019 9:00 pm
by Aislim Antrim | Media Hub

BAS EMMEN | UNSPLASH
Trash from a landfill in the mostly-black  Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood in Chapel Hill has been a longtime health threat.

CHAPEL HILL — The Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood is an unobtrusive one, perched on the northern edge of Chapel Hill. The streets are orderly, lined with Habitat for Humanity homes painted in muted greens and yellows. Children gather at the community center’s basketball court while parents mingle in driveways.


It seems peaceful, but problems lurk underground, seeping in unseen from the landfill just a stone’s throw away.


For nearly 50 years, Rogers Road residents have seen their wells contaminated, their air polluted and their roads overtaken by trash trucks. Senior citizens have been particularly hard hit with illnesses that they attribute to the water. When some test wells were analyzed in 2010, studies found that only two of the 11 wells met EPA water standards.


“To actually turn on somebody’s faucet and see red water coming out, you know it’s got to stop,” the Rev. Robert Campbell said. “This has got to change.”


Campbell has spent most of his 70 years in this neighborhood, barely 100 yards from what used to be the Orange County landfill. He’s become an unofficial leader for the community, a bridge to local politicians and an outspoken activist against the landfill. As he gets older, however, Campbell wonders: Will the problems in his community ever be resolved?


Senior citizens have been particularly hard hit in the neighborhood, with illnesses that they attribute to the contaminated water. Rogers Road, written by Emily Eidenier and published in 2013, quoted several residents who believed the water had a direct impact on their health. One resident, Bonnie Norwood, said her health declined sharply within 15 years of moving to the area.

“I’ve had three cancer surgeries,” Norwood said in a 2001 press conference. “I have been hospitalized twice with unknown blood ailments. I’ve had 16 surgeries since I moved out here. We don’t want to die out here—we came here to live.”

Norwood died in 2010, at 67 years old.

Orange County began searching for a new landfill location in the early 1970s as older locations neared capacity. The first proposed site was near Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, but due to its proximity to the camp, the cost of the land and strong public resistance, that location was dropped in June 1972.

County commissioners turned their attention to the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood land, but it was zoned for residential use. Residents organized to voice their concerns, but after a solid waste emergency was declared on Sept. 5, 1972, the land was expediently rezoned and purchased for $235,000.

In their decision, county commissioners cited the area’s sparse population with only roughly 85 households, and said it would be less objectionable than the previous site. Campbell, however, says that’s not entirely true. He theorized that since they’re a majority-black, southeast Asian, and Latin community, their neighborhood was targeted for its lack of political voice.

“They said it was just available land, but to me and some of the other residents that was just a cloak-and-dagger type statement,” Campbell said.

Despite assurances that the landfill would not affect their community and would be closed in about a decade, the neighborhood was blindsided a decade after its opening. Instead of closing down in the 1980s, the county announced that the landfill would be expanded. Campbell said residents felt like their fates were being decided for them, with no care for their community.

Rogers Road residents quickly recognized that the landfill’s effects would be more far-reaching than they previously imagined. Perhaps the most pressing issue became water contamination. Without city water hookups, most of the neighborhood ran on wells that became easily contaminated by chemicals, bacteria and debris.

“We got to the point that we didn’t really want to cook in it, didn’t want to bathe in it,” Campbell said.

Campbell originally became a leader in the Rogers Road neighborhood after he returned from Vietnam, and he quickly realized how serious the area’s lack of infrastructure was.

“There were no paved roads, we were outside the corporation of Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” he said. “We had to fight for everything we’ve got.”
His passion for the issue only intensified after the birth of his daughter, so Campbell and his wife resigned themselves to buying bottled water to keep her healthy.

“You can’t put a real price on a life,” he said. “So bottled water we had to buy, and bottled water we still buy.”

Campbell also acts as a bridge between the community members and the local governments for Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County. He attends many municipal meetings, and says a large part of his role is to bring these issues to the attention of those who can change it.

Jacquelyn Gist, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen since 1989, has been very involved with the municipal side of the landfill debate, and said it has been an issue stretching on for decades.

“You’re going back many, many years,” she said. “But nothing is ever as easy as it seems like it should be.”

Gist said her major role was insisting that there be mediation with the community to discuss concerns, issues, and solutions. Unlike some past governmental groups, who denied that the landfill directly caused the water contamination, Gist said that it was clearly the cause of their problems.

“You could draw a direct connection between the location of the landfill and the quality of the water,” she said. “But I think we’ve taken care of the quality of water issue.”


Craig Benedict, the planning and inspections director for Orange County, said many of the contamination issues were actually a result of older wells.

“In the late 1990s, early 2000s, when they got to well testing, some of them were contaminated because they were not built to the standards that you see over the last 10 years,” Benedict said. “Wells can get contaminated if they don’t have the new precautions.”

He added that Orange Water and Sewer Authority’s water pressure is higher than the old neighborhood’s pipes could handle, and as a result new sewage pipes are being installed. They’re expected to be complete within the next few months, and Benedict said these developments would give the neighborhood a long-overdue update.

“That area, since it’s been there for so many years, it’s been left out of the development cycle,” he said. “They didn’t have the opportunities that they need.”

While he acknowledged the age of their wells, Campbell emphasized that the community’s environmental problems could be traced to the landfill and ensuing pollution.

“We were able to identify so many different illegal dumpsites around the community,” he said. “But even though it was sad, it also motivated us.”

Campbell said the community became more close-knit as a result of the fight for their environment. Once the Rogers Road Community Center was opened in 2014, they gained a new place for neighborhood gatherings, tutoring, and meetings. The building is constantly busy, whether it’s elementary students clamoring for a tutor’s help, community members bringing donations for the food bank or residents coming to a movie night.

Campbell said the opening of the community center was one of the greatest days in his time at Rogers Road. His other favorite memory was in early 2012, when he and two other leaders of the community locked the gates of the landfill.

Gertrude Nunn and David Caldwell, both lifelong residents of Rogers Road, joined Campbell as the landfill closed its doors for the last time.

“We actually got to put the lock on the gate,” Campbell said proudly. “We saw that as understanding from the county that we can find better ways to deal with our trash.”

Despite the closure, Campbell said they still struggle with illegal dumpsites and waste in the area. Many truck drivers will go through the area with their loads uncovered, leaving trash to fly out behind them. Campbell said this is an effort to lighten their loads before reaching the scales at the Orange County Landfill on Eubanks Road. This is frustrating, Campbell said, but it’s a challenge the community is still facing together.

He smiled and leaned back in his chair.

“These old bones still have life,” he said. “Sometimes there’s pain, but the joy of the success overshadows the pain. This environmental movement is still moving.”

Comments

Some corporations have no value for human lives. The fact that they just happen to put these landfills in a predominately Black neighborhood is problematic within itself. This is definitely an environmental justice issue. I think its important to protect this community, as well as others, against poor air quality and toxic pollutants.
Posted on April 19, 2019
 

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