Duke professor Daniel Richter thinks about dirt. A lot actually. 

Earlier this year, Richter’s soil-centered tendencies threw him into the muddy arena of Durham politics. Testing conducted by Richter and former graduate student Enikoe Bihari found alarming lead levels on former waste incineration sites in Walltown, East End, and East Durham Parks. The City of Durham’s Parks and Recreation sat on the information for months until Durham residents discovered Bihari’s research paper documenting their findings.

“This entire study was very exploratory. We genuinely had no idea what we would find,” Bihari says. “There’s a lot of work to be done still. We’re trying to push to broaden this work to the national scale.”

Heated discussion regarding the study’s implications for surrounding neighborhoods and impacts on Durham park-goers ensued, and in August, the City of Durham replicated the testing and confirmed the dangerous lead levels. The city also added Lyon and Northgate Park to the list of contaminated parks. 

Credit: Photo by Nicole Pajor Moore

Now, Richter, Bihari, and undergraduate student Garrett Grewal have published “Legacies of Pre-1960s Municipal Waste Incineration in the Pb of City Soils,” a paper that signals broader, dangerous public health implications from waste disposal practices of the past across the United States and Canada. 

Waste disposal has historically befuddled humanity. People built cities, cities produce massive amounts of trash and waste, and as long as cities have been around, local governments have struggled to figure out what to do with their trash. Solutions over the course of history have been inventive— trash barges, hog farms, and the classic solution of dumping trash into the nearest river or lake. Waste disposal remains a point of contention in Durham politics with the recent sanitation workers’ strike

In the mid 1900s, incineration plants were especially common in the United States and Canada and cities would burn their waste at extremely high temperatures. According to Richter, this was mainly due to two factors: incineration sanitizes putrefied and hazardous waste and vastly reduces the physical volume of garbage. Two engineering surveys done in the 1930s and late 1950s suggest that half of U.S. and Canadian cities were incinerating trash, Richter says.  

That’s a staggering estimate given what researchers are learning about the potential public health hazards of incineration sites. Much of the waste burned in incinerators contained large amounts of lead and other hazardous materials, which, following incineration, becomes toxic ash.

Incinerators were largely phased out of common use after the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 and a larger transition toward sanitary landfills. This newly vacant urban land, coupled with demand for public green spaces in cities across the country, resulted in construction of many public parks directly on top of former incinerator sites.

“Public outcry just got to the point where people were saying ‘we need parks, we need parks,’ and it was in newspapers in a variety of forms,” Richter says. “Durham is not the only city to close their incinerators and open city parks.”

Richter and his students pored through old waste management surveys, newspaper archives, and other primary sources and found an initial 93 cities in the United States and Canada that were using municipal incinerators in the early and mid 1900’s. 

“This all started with [Richter] finding this 1937 map of Durham that has redlining and segregated neighborhoods delineated on it,” Bihari says. “The four incinerators that we know of currently were on that map, and then [Richter], being a long-time Durham resident, noticed that all four of those locations are currently parks as well.”

The thought of a thousand newly-discovered lead hotspots around the country is a frightening one. While North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality has a map of pre-regulatory landfills, no such map exists for former incineration sites. Richter says he believes that this blind spot should be addressed head-on, and that modern technology makes it easier to identify past incinerator sites. 

“Old city newspapers are rapidly coming online,” Richter says. “Public health offices in counties and cities could query old newspapers to find out what the history of sanitation has been in their city. Heck, high school science classes could do this.” 

Along with the digitalization of older newspapers and city maps making it easier to locate incinerator sites, advances in technology make it cheaper and easier to test for lead than ever. 

“We’re using, now a portable, handheld X-ray device that will give you a lead concentration in a soil in 20 seconds,” Richter says. “In the past, that would have taken our chemistry lab here at Duke or any other place a month or six weeks.”

While identifying and testing the problem sites might seem simple, the next step—soil contamination remediation—often proves to be an expensive and cumbersome process. Greensboro’s Bingham Park was found to have massive amounts of toxic chemicals in 2010, but, as of March 2023, the soil remediation process had no end in sight. Citizens in Wausau, Wisconsin had to wait over 15 years for their park’s soil remediation.

This research, reckoning, and remediation is a long-haul process. For now, Richter and his students are taking it one step at a time. Richter and the Duke Soils Lab have developed a research proposal for other cities across North Carolina to identify the locations and contemporary uses of former incineration sites. What the public will learn about the history of our cities, and the land we love today, comes next.

Credit: Photo by Nicole Pajor Moore

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.