When Cliff Leath moved to rural Orange County in 1994, among his few neighbors were a herd of dogs, a dabbling of scientists and a caretaker headquartered at the modest University of North Carolina's Research Resource Facility near White Cross.
Hidden by a woods and down a long driveway, the RRF—or the Farm, as it's known—has housed mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, and occasionally, squirrel monkeys—subjects of experiments at UNC's School of Medicine on the main campus 14 miles south.
"We had a very neighborly relationship," says Leath of UNC. His 32-acre property abuts the Farm, and when Leath complained to university officials about the sound of barking, they met with him and resolved the issue.
But Leath says UNC stopped being good neighbors about 18 months ago, when he saw surveyor's tape and stakes in the woods belonging to UNC. As Leath later learned, UNC plans to significantly expand the Farm, which has existed since the early 1970s. According to county and state documents, an 11,000-square-foot building, which will house about 100 dogs, is nearly complete. And the full-blown master plan calls for at least 10 buildings encompassing 72,000 square feet on the southwestern part of the 53-acre site. In addition, UNC is installing two large wastewater treatment systems, including two 175,000-gallon storage ponds for treated wastewater, a new well for potable water and a spray irrigation system—all of which residents say could negatively impact the environment.
"Is this going to be a nuisance?" Leath says. "Why isn't UNC telling us this? The way we have to find out information is to request it. We were trying to be courteous and respectful, but we've come to an impasse."
UNC has kept its plans quiet, in part because of concerns over animal rights activists disrupting the nature of the research. Yet environmental issues are Orange County residents' primary concern.
Orange County commissioners know little about the expansion, and since UNC is state-owned, the county's planning department has limited power to manage it. When nearby residents have tried to learn more about the expansion, they say they've been stonewalled. UNC officials have held two meetings with neighbors over the last two years, but Laura Streitfeld, chairwoman of the citizens' nonprofit group Preserve Rural Orange, which successfully thwarted the UNC airport slated for the same area, says university officials had few answers to their questions.
"We're still waiting for answers about environmental consequences," Streitfeld says. "There was no public notice to the neighbors, who didn't know this was going on. We'd like to see a more transparent process."
Peer into the woods at the Farm and you'll see 330 irrigation spray heads popping up from the ground like mushrooms. Wastewater—from toilets, sinks, and drains where water flows when dirty cages are washed down—is treated onsite each day and then held in storage ponds, one for human waste, one for animal waste. From there, underground pipes and pumps send the water to the spray heads, where it is discharged into the woods. When the site is fully built, as much as 20,000 gallons of wastewater could be generated each day.
The woods and the spray field lie adjacent to Leath's property. He is concerned that mist from the irrigation system is drifting into his yard. "It blows right up on me," Leath says.
John Phillips, a civil engineer, says wastewater is disinfected to levels permitted by the state Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. He adds that there is less concern with drift in wooded areas because trees absorb, filter and block the moisture, and that the water is released in larger drops, not a mist. "As long as the spray system is managed, it's not a problem," Phillips says.
However, there have been management problems with the wastewater system, according to State Construction Office documents. In July 2003, the contractor for the Farm expansion wrote to UNC officials, "There is no operational permit at DENR for operation of the existing sanitary facility." In February 2004, the contractor again noted that an operations manual, required for the permit, still had not been written, "nor is a manual being used for the operation of the system." UNC subsequently wrote the manual and received the permit for the sanitary facility, which had been built in the 1970s.
In 2006, the contractor noted that UNC's original expansion proposal called for just one wastewater treatment system to handle the animal and human waste. "Nor did it acknowledge that the organic loads from 200 hogs would overwhelm the treatment capabilities of the domestic wastewater treatment system," the contractor wrote. The plan was amended to include two systems.
Even if the systems are managed correctly, says hydrogeologist Edo McGowan, state and federal standards are inadequate. "Unless they can assure the water going out of the sprinklers is almost sterile, there's a problem with drift," says McGowan, a former consultant to the U.S. State Department who specializes in studying manmade wastes and their effect on the environment.
He noted that tests for coliform, the presence of which indicates other pathogens could be present in the water, are insufficient. Some bacteria is "viable," McGowan says, yet it doesn't grow in a culture. "Government standards fail to accurately reflect the true extent of the pathogens," he says.
Earlier this year, McGowan visited the site, which is on a small hill that leads down to two unnamed streams that flow into Collins Creek. In turn, Collins Creek flows into the Haw River and eventually Jordan Lake. During rainstorms, water from the site could run into the stream and seep into the ground. (The Indy also walked the perimeter of the site and saw sticks, leaves and other debris trapped against the perimter fence as if water had trapped it there.)
"There are people with wells out there and these people may be at risk," McGowan said.
Jon Risgaard, supervisor of the land application unit in the Aquifer Protection Section of the state Division of Water Quality, said state rules require spray irrigation systems to be at least 400 feet away from homes. In Germany, McGowan says, the boundary is 3,000 feet.
UNC contractors conducted a state-required environmental assessment, later approved by DENR, concluding the expansion would pose no significant impact to the environment. Yet in the comments to DENR, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission noted its concern about potential indirect impacts to the two streams: "It is unclear what measures will be implemented to protect these streams from the proposed or future development of the site," the commission wrote. "We have no objections to a spray irrigation system, but we recommend that wastewater not be sprayed within the buffers or on slopes that would facilitate runoff into the streams during rain events.
Documents obtained from DENR show that UNC officials say no wastewater will run into the streams; that would violate the facility's state permit.
Risgaard, who has also visited the site, says he saw "no patterns" of water leaving the Farm. He says UNC must submit monthly water testing and flow data. DENR inspects the site at least annually, he says.
"There are no concerns now about pathogens in the drift," Risgaard says. Yet he acknowledged that scientific studies are being conducted on the safety of spray irrigation systems. "We think the rules that were created are sufficient, but if we have to adjust the rules, we will," he says. "There is always a possibility there could be pathogens in treated wastewater."
UNC was not required to notify adjacent landowners of the expansion; a required public notice appeared in State Environmental Clearinghouse Bulletin, a little-known list of state projects on the N.C. Department of Administration's Web site.
Unlike UNC's other projects, such as Carolina North and University Square, which lie within the Chapel Hill Town Limits, there has been no such public input with the Farm.
Since UNC is state-owned, the county has little power over the expansion, although planning documents show officials did approve the site plan. (UNC successfully contended the expansion of its research facilities falls under existing agricultural zoning.)
Orange County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier acknowledges that local residents have not been involved. "The problem is that the permits are from the state and not the local health department," says Pelissier, the former chairwoman of the local Sierra Club. "The health department assured me the state kept them in the loop, but we don't know the details of what the permits are for."
Orange County Environment & Resource Conservation Department Director David Stancil and Planning Director Craig Benedict did not return repeated calls and e-mails from the Indy seeking comment.
"When there is the unknown, people's fears get activated," Pelissier says. "What the university needs to do is be upfront and say what they're doing in there and what they're spraying."
UNC officials point to several meetings it has held with residents as evidence the university has been open about its plans. In one instance, neighbors complained about construction starting too early in the morning, and UNC directed the workers to begin later. Yet residents say they received little valuable information at the meetings. So in June, Preserve Rural Orange members filed a comprehensive open records request with UNC's Office of Legal Counsel, asking for all documents related to the site and to the Francis Owen Blood Lab. As of this week, 400 pages, which UNC says is a fraction of what's available, have been sent to the group, some of it redacted. According to e-mails from Regina Stabile, director of Institutional Records and Reporting Compliance, to Preserve Rural Orange, the university plans to charge the group $1,000-$5,000 to merely review the records, not including the cost of copying. UNC is also requiring them to sign an advance agreement to pay for the records.
"I surmise they don't want to give us the information," Leath says.
(On Sept. 22, the Indy filed an open records request with Stabile that was much smaller in scope. After seven weeks, and several inquiries, the Indy has not received any documents, although N.C. open records law states agencies should deliver documents within a "reasonable amount of time." UNC has not mentioned a charge to inspect the documents.)
Streitfeld says the group asked for a large volume of records because when it made a small open records request regarding the proposed UNC airport, "the university delayed giving us the information for so long that we received documents months after the decision was made not to build it."
"We thought if we made a small request, we'll never get all the answers," she adds. "We want timely and significant information for the residents. The project is well under way."
Residents, many of whom are still stinging from university obfuscation over the airport, agree that they would still welcome more interaction with UNC.
"Let's be more proactive and collaborative," Streitfeld says. "There's still time left to improve relations with the county and the residents."