WHITE CROSS - A UNC administrator apologized for past mistakes and told rural residents again last week the university has no plans to expand its animal-holding facility in Bingham Township.
The words from Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Bob Lowman did not reassure neighbors of the Bingham Facility.
They repeatedly asked state regulators for a full environmental impact statement before signing off on the university’s latest plans to dispose of wastewater at the site.
Technically, Wednesday night’s public hearing at the White Cross Recreation Center was to collect new information for the state Division of Water Quality to consider as it reviews UNC’s request to modify its wastewater permit.
Jeff Manning, a supervisor with the DWQ, said the state typically does not require environmental impact statements when an applicant plans to spray treated wastewater over fields, as the university has done and wants to resume at the Bingham Facility.
But neighbors said that’s the only way to know what’s in the wastewater and to assess how the facility may have already affected their groundwater and Collins Creek, a polluted stream that feeds the Haw River and eventually Jordan Lake.
“You have to look at their track record of compliance,” said John Runkle, an environmental law attorney.
“There’s been a whole series of violations: not doing tests, not telling people. (These) are pretty serious matters.”A brief history
UNC has housed research animals at the facility, once commonly called “The Farm,” on Orange Chapel Clover Garden Road west of Carrboro since the 1970s.
The facility made headlines in May 2010 when the university paid a $15,000 state fine for leaking an unknown amount of treated wastewater into Collins Creek. UNC officials first suspected that a partially filled 1.6 million gallon storage pond was leaking the previous October, according to university correspondence. They did not notify the state until December as they continued to investigate the problem.
The spill surfaced as UNC planned to add three buildings and expand from 85 dogs to up to 450 dogs and 150 hogs. After repeated treated-wastewater leaks, it shelved the plan and returned a $14.5 million federal grant when it determined it would need another $20 million to make the expansion work.
The facility in rural southwest Orange County houses dogs used in hemophilia research in a pair of decades-old buildings. A third building was intended to house dogs for a muscular dystrophy researcher who has since left the university.
The university has been pumping and hauling the Bingham Facility’s waste to the Orange Water and Sewer Authority treatment plant since it shut its system down two and half years ago.
“This has been a noisy and smelly process for us and our immediate neighbors,” Lowman said at last week’s hearing. “It’s also very expensive.”
Now, UNC wants to rebuild the system at a cost of $900,000, building a 1.2 million-gallon clay-lined storage pond and spreading treated wastewater with higher-quality plumbing material over a larger area.
“To sum up, we made some mistakes at Bingham,” Lowman said. “We’re sorry for them, and we’ve learned from them.” No plans, no money
Although Lowman says the university has no plans – and no money – to expand, neighbors remain wary. About 100 people attended Wednesday’s hearing.
Nancy Holt said she worries about contaminants in irrigated wastewater spreading through the air.
“Do you actually know what, if anything, is in the water from the animal building?” she asked.
The university is converting its animal-holding areas to dry bedding, but once a permit is renewed, workers will use water to hose down cages and holding areas after the dry bedding is scooped up, Lowman said. Small patches of soiled bedding would be removed frequently and the whole kennel hosed down every few weeks, he estimated.
The water would likely remove small amounts of urine, he said.
Residents are also worried about their groundwater.
“UNC has not historically acted as a good informer or a good neighbor,” Elizabeth Hilborn told the hearing officers, adding that neighbors can’t afford to take chances with contaminated water affecting their wells.
“There is no alternative” for their drinking water, she said.
Lowman said at the hearing that tests of monitoring wells under the old permit showed “no pattern of contamination.” Tests of the university’s drinking-water well and another well on an adjoining property “also found no concerns.”
At one time, Lowman suggested the university might test neighbors’ wells. In an interview Thursday, he said isn’t sure he ever “used the word ‘promise’,” and at this time, there is no money for testing.
Plus, he said, he was advised the results, if they found contamination, would not prove where it came from. Many rural wells are polluted, often by the homeowners’ septic systems, he said.
Several people asked why the university needs such a large holding pond and spray area.
Lowman said the pond has to be big enough to contain treated wastewater for periods when the land is saturated and cannot be sprayed. The irrigation area is getting bigger because the university plans to spray the same volume of treated wastewater as before over more acreage, reducing environmental impact. The modified permit does not increase the maximum amount of treated wastewater that can be sprayed, 3,500 gallons per day, and Lowman said the university may end up spraying far less.
“There is no hidden agenda here,” he said Thursday.
“I assure everybody the only reason we (proposed) larger fields was to minimize the impact on the surrounding area,” he said. “We thought we were doing the right thing.”
The public comment period on UNC’s draft permit application ends Sept. 4. Comments may be sent to the Division of Water Quality, Aquifer Protection Section, Land Application Unit, 1636 Mail Service center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1636, Attn: Nathaniel Thornburg