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‘We are in a crisis’: Lead cleanup in Durham parks expected to cost millions, take years

Park kids and children playground for game and activity empty and closed for Coronavirus or Covid19, slide and swing empty tape and strips with word STOP, do not enter, warning sign of quarantine

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
May 24, 2024

State environmental officials will conduct further tests in and near five Durham parks to determine the extent of widespread lead contamination that has disrupted summer camps, closed playgrounds and concerned residents whose children have frequented those areas.

These areas could include private property adjacent to the parks, with the owners’ permission. At East Durham Park, 2500 E. Main St., areas with lead at 10 times EPA action levels abut an apartment complex. Likewise, at Lyon Park on Lakewood Avenue, two homes sit just feet from contaminated areas.

For the past year, community members and ToxicFree NC, a nonprofit environmental group, have urged Durham officials to be more transparent about the findings — and to protect the public from the contamination — efforts that culminated at a public meeting Wednesday evening.

“We know how serious it is,” said Durham Mayor Leonardo Williams, at the meeting. “None of was born when this happened but we’re responsible for cleaning it up. Over time we’ve learned a lot. We are in a crisis. We will address the contamination.”

The source of the lead was old municipal incinerators that operated on those sites until the 1950s, when they were dismantled. The property then became parkland. Northgate Park did not have an incinerator, but waste was disposed there. In the early to mid-20th century, incinerators were intentionally sited in in historically Black and low-income neighborhoods, racist practices that continue to burden those communities with pollution.

Lead is a neurotoxin. Chronic exposure can cause permanent neurological and brain damage in children, who are especially vulnerable because they spend time outdoors and often put their hands in their mouths. Adults with high blood levels of lead can suffer from brain, kidney, heart and reproductive disorders.

The City consistently downplayed — and early on, even ignored — the threat of lead in the parks. In the fall of 2021, with Parks and Rec’s approval, Enikoe Bihari, then a master’s student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, sampled soil at three parks because of their incinerator history. As NC Newsline previously reported, top Durham parks officials knew about the likely lead contamination early as November 2022, when Dan Richter, a soil scientist at Duke alerted them to researchers’ initial sampling results. Richter again informed parks officials about the findings in the spring, although he did not inform the public, either.

Not until June 2023, after a Walltown neighborhood resident found a paper online by Duke University researchers that showed testing results, did parks officials react, Newsline previously reported. And even then, behind the scenes Parks Director Wade Walcutt was pressuring Toddi Steelman, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, not to publicly disclose the data unless she cleared it with the city; Steelman declined.

“[Parks and Rec] staff didn’t provide a timely response,” Walcutt said at this week’s meeting. “It should never happened that way. I deeply regret that and apologize.”

Nearly a year after the findings became public, large swaths of five parks — Walltown, Northgate, East End, East Durham and Lyon Park — are closed. And Durham officials have enlisted the state Department of Environmental Quality to help assess the full extent of the contamination and to possibly receive funding to clean it up — a process that will take years.

The parks are now enrolled in the state’s Pre-regulatory Landfill program, which provides local communities with technical expertise and funding to clean up contamination. A pre-regulatory landfill is defined as any land area, whether publicly or privately owned, where municipal solid waste was disposed before Jan. 1, 1983. Prior to that date, landfills were not required to be lined and there were lax — or in some cases, nonexistent — regulations about how to dispose of waste. The state prioritizes cleanups by using a risk score

State contractors said Wednesday they will now do further testing to determine how far the contamination extends, known as the waste boundary. They will also dig beneath the playgrounds to learn the depth of the lead and other contaminants in the soil. Since streams flow through Walltown, Northgate and Lyon Park, contractors will sample them, as well as groundwater and soil gas.

City officials included $5 million in the annual budget toward a short-term solution. “We don’t anticipate this will fix all the issues,” Walcutt said.

Until DEQ contractors finish their fieldwork, the city won’t know what a full remediation will entail or how much it will cost. “But instead of waiting, we wanted to submit some funding to help with alternatives,” Walcutt said.

For context, $19 million in federal and state funding has been earmarked to clean up a similar site in Greensboro, Bingham Park. That park, also in a Black neighborhood, had an incinerator and a landfill; it is closed during the remediation.

The city also plans to pursue EPA and state grants, as well as possibly direct funding from the state legislature or Congress.

“These are complex issues, and it will take a long time for a 100 percent fix,” Walcutt said. “DEQ doesn’t know the full extent of what we’re up against.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.