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The Daily Tar Heel

Town Defends Landfill Placement

A recent study conducted by a UNC class cites evidence that the county landfill was placed in an area simply because of its high minority population.

But Orange County officials say the location was picked because it was inexpensive and large enough to accommodate the landfill, not because of its racial demographics.

Despite a real presence of environmental racism in some areas of the country, the charges are unfounded in this case, officials say.

"We take these type of allegations very seriously," said Gayle Wilson, Orange County solid waste director. "I think environmental racism really exists. I don't know how broadly, but I know it exists."

But Wilson said he doesn't think the case in Orange County comes close to qualifying as environmental racism.

Dr. Valerie Ann Kaalund, a professor of African-American studies at UNC, disagrees.

Kaalund led her "Bioethics in the African Diaspora" class in a study of the Eubanks Road neighborhood for the past two semesters. Kaalund said she saw an injustice in Orange County and that she wanted to educate her class.

"I want students to understand what's happening in their own back yard," she said.

Kaalund also said she believes the Orange County case falls under this category. "The reason I've called this environmental racism is there has been a disproportionate number of black communities that have had landfills placed in their communities," she said. "Whether it's unconscious or conscious, it's still a matter of racism in my book."

Kaalund said the community is vulnerable and that town officials have exploited it. "Politically, they don't have the kind of resources that persons of higher incomes may have," she said. "It is a low-wealth community -- but rich in history and culture."

In 1972, Orange County built the landfill by the Rogers Road and Eubanks Road neighborhood, a predominately black and lower-income area, said Marcus Curry, a student in last semester's African and Afro-American Studies 128 class. Curry said he would estimate the neighborhood to be 90 to 95 percent black.

But County Engineer Paul Thames said typically, when building large public projects, officials look for the closest place that will get the most use on the cheapest land, Thames said.

"When you have to get 500 acres, you're going to go to the cheaper land," he said. "Low-income people are also looking for cheaper land."

N.C. Sen. Howard Lee, D-Orange, was Chapel Hill's first black mayor, holding office from 1966-75. He said the issue was very controversial when the site was chosen for the landfill, especially with the neighborhood residents.

"I can certainly attest that when locating the area, it was not racially motivated," Lee said. "I tried to reassure the neighbors that it was being located there because the land itself was conducive for what we were looking for."

Jeff Penley, a student in Kaalund's class, said some of the residents have said town officials promised to close the landfill after about 20 years.

"There was a promise that said when the landfill filled to capacity, they would set up a recreation center," Penley said.

Lee said he did talk to neighborhood residents and assured them the landfill would be run properly.

He also said the land would be converted to a recreation center or park once it was filled to capacity.

And because no timetable was set for the landfill to be closed, Lee said the promise can still be fulfilled.

Wilson said he estimates that the landfill will close in January 2007.

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But residents have said their water is contaminated and officials are not helping. "One gentleman told us when you're taking a bath, sometimes the water will turn brown," Curry said. "They can't even cook with the water. They have to buy bottled water, and the county won't help."

But county officials question whether the bad water is a direct result of the landfill's presence. "Some of the water out there is bad; there's not a doubt about it," Wilson said. "But there is not a shred of evidence that it's caused by the landfill."

Most of the residents in the Rogers Road area are using well water, and Thames said that is not unusual.

"Of the 115,000 people in Orange County, probably about 80,000 have access to municipal water," he said.

But county officials have hired the Orange Water and Sewer Authority to install a main water line out to the Rogers Road neighborhood, enabling residents to connect to municipal water.

The $500,000 dollar project will be paid for out of money used for landfill maintenance, Thames said.

Penley said the point of the class is to raise concern and to make people aware of the issue. "We're coming up with base figures and talking with people. It's all preliminary."

The City Editor can be reached at citydesk@unc.edu.

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