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In Orange and Guilford counties, neighbors fight landfill expansions

In 1972, David Caldwell was just a teenager, but he recalls every detail of that autumn day when Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee and other town officials stood in the Caldwell family's backyard and signed a contract that would mean little more than a blank piece of paper.

"My father told me and my three brothers that this was going to be a really good thing for us, especially since the contract promised we would get a basketball court and ball field," says Caldwell, 56, a retired police officer. His father, David Caldwell Sr., was Chapel Hill's first African-American police officer. "We were walking eight miles uptown to play basketball at the Hargraves Center—the only African-American basketball court," says Caldwell. "We were excited."

Until he saw the signatures, the elder Caldwell was careful about sharing the news with his sons and his wife, who were going uptown to wash the family's clothes at the Laundromat. "He told the officials, 'Make them put it in writing,'" says Caldwell. "Because my dad believed that a contract, just like an officer's oath, wasn't something a man would break."

But years later, that contract has been broken. The 80-acre Orange County Landfill, which abuts the Caldwell family home place, was supposed to have closed 25 years ago. It should be a park by now.

Instead, county officials are considering expanding the landfill, which lies five miles north of Chapel Hill in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

The neighborhood stinks of garbage, tons of which smolder beneath the landfill's dirt cap. Buzzards soar overhead and loiter nearby.

The original Orange County Landfill is one of 667 built in North Carolina before 1983, meaning they are "preregulatory," essentially unlined dumps whose contents often leak into the soil and groundwater. (A newer portion of the landfill is lined.) For decades, these dumps were systematically located in low-income, minority communities, and they continue to affect the quality of life in these neighborhoods.

But North Carolina has not learned from the past. Your trash is part of the 9 million tons of garbage North Carolina generated last year, and much of it went into landfills in low-income neighborhoods. To accommodate this load of discarded fast-food containers, broken toys and other garbage, North Carolina has 1,397 waste facilities: active and closed municipal landfills, transfer stations, incinerators, waste processors and industrial, construction and demolition landfills.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources continues to issue permits for new and expanded landfills—regulations passed in 1983 require them to be lined—and most of them are being built or expanded in underprivileged areas.

A 2007 study by the UNC Department of Epidemiology, "Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina," concluded that solid waste facilities present "numerous public health concerns and are disproportionately located in communities of color and low wealth," adding "the continued need for new facilities could exacerbate this environmental injustice."

Despite legal challenges, the state has yet to lose a court case. "Efforts to site new facilities meet strong opposition, and many recent permit decisions granted by the state's Solid Waste Section have been challenged in court," Ellen Lorscheider, DENR planning and programs branch chief, says, adding that "to date, all decisions have been upheld."

These decisions, deliberated by judges in courtrooms far from the Caldwell home place, are removed from the daily reality Caldwell must live with. Although his mother and three brothers live nearby, his five children have moved away, and he knows they won't return to live at the home place.

He recently looked outside and saw buzzards roosting on a nearby playground. "What do I have to leave my kids?" he says. "Funky-smelling buzzards, rats and garbage trucks?"

Nearly 40 years ago, people living in the Rogers-Eubanks community agreed to allow the county to build a landfill in their neighborhood. They believed that in return they would receive basic necessities such as water and sewer hookup, storm drains, curbs, gutters, streetlights, sidewalks, a recreation center and green space. These were the promises made by then-Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee, the town's first African-American elected to that office.

Gayle Wilson, Orange County Solid Waste Management director, who has worked for the department since 1989, said Lee's agreement with the neighborhood was merely verbal. "There was never anything in writing as far as I know, and he was speaking for himself, not the board," Wilson said.

That's not true. The Indy obtained a copy of the Nov. 30, 1972, landfill agreement from the town of Chapel Hill. It was signed by Lee, Carrboro Mayor J. Wells Jr. and Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairman E.D. Bennett.

After this article was published, Wilson called the Indy and said he was aware of the 1972 contract, but that it didn't state sidewalks or other city amenities would be built.

According to the contract, the neighborhood was to be planted with pine trees, "within a reasonable period of time following completion of a section of the landfill," and that after the landfill was full, it would become a park or a recreation center. If the landfill prevented the land from being "desirable," the contract reads, it "may by unanimous action of the parties be disposed of in some other manner."

County officials estimated the landfill would be full in 1985. Instead, in 1982 they began discussing the first of many expansions. In February of 1996, the Orange County Board of Commissioners, Chapel Hill Town Council and the Hillsborough Town Board of Commissioners voted in favor of expanding it again, according to a News & Observer article.

But then-Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson disagreed. "I'm not old-school about many things," he was quoted as saying, "but I am old-school about keeping promises. I think we're stabbing them in the back."

In 1997, county officials announced they would expand the landfill rather then shut it down. In April of this year, Orange County commissioners postponed a decision on extending the life of the landfill, which is scheduled to close in 2012.

But by deepening the landfill, the county could create additional capacity for two more years, and possibly until 2018. To expand the landfill, the county would have to receive a permit from DENR. The commissioners aren't scheduled to decide on that proposal until after their summer break, in August.

Despite increased regulations on municipal landfills, a May 2011 study by the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, published online in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research, found that residents reported more respiratory problems and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat when landfill odor was present. Researchers validated odor reports by measuring hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that is produced by decomposition of landfill wastes.

The study followed the health of 23 landfill neighbors over two-week periods. Residents sat outside twice a day for five minutes to observe odors and report on symptoms and quality of life. Although hourly average hydrogen sulfide levels were low, the chemical is a marker of the presence of a more complex mixture of potentially hazardous landfill gasses.

It's not only the air quality that concerns the residents, but also the water. Last year, the Orange County Health Department tested the community's drinking water wells and reported that nine of the 11 wells were contaminated and did not meet federal drinking water standards. Contaminants found include the carcinogen vinyl chloride, which was detected at levels 1,066 times higher than DENR's acceptable level.

Long-term exposure to vinyl chloride can lead to "rare cancer of the liver," according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Benzene was detected at six times higher than acceptable levels. Long-term exposure can lead to anemia, a decrease in blood platelets and increased risk of cancer. Other contaminants included tetrachlorethylene and dichlorethene.

Wilson argues that the contamination in the wells is not connected to the landfill located behind the neighborhood's homes. "There are a lot of rumors," he says, "but I've never see anything that says the communities' drinking well water is contaminated from the landfill itself. There is no evidence that they are contaminated from the landfill; most likely it's failing septic systems or failing wells."

However, UNC epidemiologist Chris Heaney says the health department study wasn't designed to assess the source of water contamination, but "merely to investigate the safety and adequacy of drinking water quality with respect to existing state and federal guidelines for microbial and chemical contaminants."

To understand the source of the well's contamination would require extensive investigation the county has not undertaken at this time, says Heaney. "Given the historical and repeated requests by the Rogers-Eubanks community members to be connected to safe public water and sewer services, the inadequacies in water quality discovered through the UNC and Orange County Health Department studies provide evidence of a need to bring improved water sources to these residents, regardless of the source of contamination," he adds.

The EPA is providing bottled water to one household in the neighborhood, according to federal documents, because its drinking water well was designated as an "imminent hazard" because of pesticide contamination. The EPA is also arranging for that home to be connected to public water.

The UNC Center for Civil Rights and neighborhood leaders have filed a federal discrimination complaint against Orange County, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the Orange County Water and Sewer Authority. The EPA is investigating the complaints.

Wilson argues that 90 percent of the neighborhood does have access to public water. But Peter Gilbert, attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, says Wilson's estimates include residents who could tap into a water line, but "by our analysis, that's only a few properties"—properties that should have been connected using Community Development Block Grants. Figures from the UNC Center for Civil Rights show that 29 of 102—or one-third—of the homes on Rogers Road do not have public water. Moreover, Gilbert says, having "access" to a water line doesn't mean residents can afford the thousands of dollars in hookup fees.

Heaney of UNC is compiling a survey on the water and septic systems in Rogers-Eubanks. He says "some residents do use their household well water for drinking, bathing, washing clothes and other household uses."

Caldwell, who is also community organizer and recreational director for the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA), says many residents get some of their water from the neighborhood community center, where RENA pays $35 a month for a filtration system. "That's helping us out a lot," Caldwell says, noting that no one in his family drinks water from the tap.

Meanwhile, a nearby Habitat for Humanity housing development, which was recently built with money from block grants, does have county sewer and water hookup, paid for through a federal program that funds affordable housing.

Last November the county agreed to add nine of the original Rogers Road-Eubanks neighborhood homes to its system, which can accommodate additional residents.

According to Orange County Commissioner Valerie Foushee, a CDBG grant for $75,000 was awarded last month, and those nine homes will get service, although it is uncertain when.

"We agreed to talk about how quickly we can remediate the community's situation," says Foushee. She has visited the neighborhood, and says she wouldn't want to live near the landfill.

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