This story originally published online at NC Newsline.
Top Durham Parks and Recreation officials knew last November that areas in three city parks contained high levels of lead, but did not inform the public, emails obtained today by NC Newsline under public records laws show.
On Nov. 30, 2022, Dan Richter, a soil scientist at Duke University told Parks Superintendent Robert Jennings that “the results show very high soil lead in all three parks … How should we move ahead? Do let me know. While I’m not a soil remediation expert, we do see opportunities and needs for soil remediation at all three parks.” (This string of emails begins on Page 59 of the linked file.)
The Parks Department’s Assistant Director for Planning Development Tom Dawson was copied on the email.
After Richter informed them of the findings, several days passed before he received a response. On Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, Jennings replied to Richter, but seemed unfazed by the results.
“Thank you for the follow up. The findings from your research are consistent with findings going back to the Phase 1 environmental studies. DPR would plan remediation efforts based on several factors including available funding, and/or development at particular site, especially development that would impact the public. For now, if you could continue to share your findings with DPR, we can add them to the body of knowledge and take them into account for future park plans.”
Dawson agreed with Jennings, noting, “I think that’s a good response Robert. I’d add that we test and remediate playground areas prior to renovation or development.”
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 Walltown, East End, and East Durham parks for lead. The researchers chose these parks because the city had historically operated incinerators there. Bihari’s paper, which at that time had not been peer-reviewed, was published last December with the findings. (The city also operated an incinerator at Lyon Park, but Bihari and Richter did not sample there, citing time constraints.)
Bihari found that many shallow soils, no more than an inch deep, exceeded the EPA’s hazard thresholds for residential play areas—400 parts per million. In all three parks, the incinerators had been located in what are now “highly trafficked areas, such as grass fields, sports facilities, playgrounds, and picnic areas,” the study reads.
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. There is no safe exposure to lead.
In March 2023, Richter offered more data, including maps showing the lead concentrations. He apparently received no response, because on April 22, he re-sent the message and expressed his alarm about some of the levels: “I do worry about East Durham Park (north of E Main St) and to a lesser extent Walltown Park. There is surface soil lead in these two parks that is over 1000 and 2000 ppm.”
Not until May, when a resident of the Walltown neighborhood read Bihari’s paper online, did the information begin to circulate, first among the neighborhood association, and then more widely.
On May 8, Richter emailed Jennings and Dawson: “Robert and Tom, I’m beginning to be contacted by neighborhood associations about the soils in the parks that were incinerators. I’d like to meet with you and your department to explain what we’ve found. I can assure folks that the city and your department is aware, interested, and concerned about the situation. My calendar is wide open for this.”
Finally, in early June, the Walltown Community Association sent city leaders and Duke University officials an urgent email asking that they immediately act on the information. At that point, City Manager Wanda Page issued a formal statement about the findings, followed by a public apology by Toddi Steelman, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, for “not more proactively communicating” with Walltown residents sooner.
At a community meeting on June 29, Parks and Rec Director Wade Walcutt said “we received the report from the community itself.”
Durham resident Sherri Rosenthal spoke at the community meeting. “That knowledge was within the city, yet no one thought this was pretty significant,” she said.
Walcutt responded: “That’s correct, because studies happen all the time. Duke said they would let us know the results and findings.”
Although Walcutt was included in emails about access to areas for sampling, he was not copied on messages from Richter about the results. However, the city emails make clear that at least Jennings and Dawson knew about the high lead findings but did not share that information widely, at least not by email.
A Durham spokesperson told NC Newsline via email today that “the City of Durham is aware of past email correspondence between Duke soil scientist Dan Richter and Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) staff about the research and preliminary findings of a student report raising concerns about varying levels of lead found and/or suspected in the soil in some areas of five DPR parks.
While the email discussion suggests action be taken to test the soil, the actual report with specific findings was not received by DPR until May 23. “
The parks remain open during additional soil testing, conducted by Mid-Atlantic Associates, an environmental consulting firm to conduct additional sampling. “We need to build upon the science of Duke student,” Walcutt said.
State environmental officials approved the firm’s sampling plan, and the work is scheduled to begin this week. In addition to lead, Mid-Atlantic will also test some areas for other hazardous metals, including arsenic, cobalt, chromium, thallium, and mercury.
Details of the sampling plans
The firm is also resampling and expanding beyond areas where Duke scientists conducted their testing. This includes areas of the park where lead levels exceeded 280 parts per million. That number is lower than the 400 ppm action level, but the EPA requires that sampling areas within 20% to 30% of that level be re-screened out of caution.
Mid-Atlantic will resample 10% of the areas that had lead levels less than 280 parts per million, as a way to confirm those findings.
Once the new samples are collected, results could be available within two weeks, Mid-Atlantic officials said at a community meeting last month. Based on the recent timeline, that would occur in early to mid-August.
The results will guide the city’s plan to reduce public exposure to the hotspots, their clean-up, and additional sampling, if necessary.
The following maps contain several scientific abbreviations:
- 280 mg/kg = 280 parts per million
- SVOC = semi-volatile organic compounds
- XRF value = the level of lead detected by Duke University researchers using an X-Ray Fluorescence method
Duke University results: 14 of 99 samples above the target screening threshold of 280 parts per million.
Of the 14, nine were near the stream running north-south through the park. Four were near the basketball courts and open field to the west. The highest levels were located in the southeast corner of the park, near where the incinerator operated.
Sampling plan: Twenty-four locations, plus the playground.
Duke University results: 16 of 60 samples showed levels above 280 parts per million. An incinerator operated on the west side of the park, near where two samples contained elevated levels. A second incinerator could have also operated to the east. Duke researchers speculated that high lead levels in the southern and southeastern areas could have come from a historical debris and trash pile.
Sampling plan: Twenty-three locations.
Duke University results: Nine of 108 samples had lead levels above 280 ppm. Of those, eight were at the city’s old sign shop, which is locked and gated. The other hotspot was in a wooded area along the eastern boundary, about 200 feet from the main park. The incinerator operated in the northwestern portion of the park.
Sampling plan: Twenty locations, plus the playground.
Duke University researchers did not sample Northgate Park because it did not house an incinerator. However, the researchers noted in their paper that since the area was a disposal site for ash and cinders from other incinerators, there could be contamination there.
Sampling plan: Soil will be collected from 283 spots.
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