This story originally published online at NC Newsline.

The City of Durham has closed an unlined playground in Northgate Park after additional lab testing found elevated levels of lead in a soil sample beneath a foot of mulch, according to the Parks and Recreation Department. The other two playgrounds contain liners between the mulch and the underlying soil; those areas remain open.

The department announced these new findings, and others, on its website on Saturday, August 12.

Previous testing by Duke University researchers—confirmed by city contractors—had found several areas in Walltown, and East Durham parks, as well as the City’s old Sign and Signal Shop at East End, to have high levels of lead—a legacy of municipal incinerators that had operated in these predominantly Black neighborhoods until 1950, when they were torn down.

(The researchers did not sample Lyon Park because of time constraints; Northgate was later identified as potentially contaminated because ash from the incinerators had been reportedly buried there.)

However, preliminary soil screening results provided by city-hired contractors on August 3 showed Northgate Park and Lyon Park were not contaminated. The recent information is based on additional laboratory analysis.

  • At Lyon Park, 1200 W. Lakewood Ave., preliminary laboratory analysis identified one soil sample above the EPA Action Level of 400 parts per million for playgrounds, according to Parks and Recreation. The location is behind the fenced-in baseball field and in the woods on the far eastern park boundary. The City will post signs in English and Spanish warning people not to enter the area.
  • The most recent analysis also found a hotspot in a grassy area between the East Durham Recreation Center, 2615 Harvard Ave., and a bicycle rack. This area will be fenced off, with warning signs posted.
  • An eighth location in Walltown, 1700 Guess Road, was discovered to have elevated levels of lead: a wooded area near the creek bank, which will also be fenced off.

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 has 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.

Only in June, after a resident of the Walltown neighborhood discovered Bihari’s research paper online did the issue become public. Meanwhile, 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.

Walcutt has yet to publicly explain why he wanted to keep the data quiet. He dealt with contaminated parks when he worked for the City of Greensboro parks department. Walcutt was there for six years, two of them as director, when lead and other contaminants were detected in Bingham Park on Greensboro’s southeast side. Similar to its Durham counterparts, Bingham Park had been home to an incinerator until the 1950s. However, compounding the problem, Bingham is further contaminated because it was constructed, in 1972, on top of an unlined landfill. It has yet to be cleaned up because of funding shortages.

Even after the Duke results became public and the City hired Mid-Atlantic to do additional sampling, Durham officials continued to downplay the university researchers’ work, NC Newsline reported. Signs at the sampling sites did not mention the word “lead,” nor explained why the testing was being done. Parks officials and City spokespersons also emphasized that the playgrounds were safe, even though some of the contaminated areas were in heavily trafficked parts of Walltown, in particular. One fenced-off area touches a basketball court; yellow caution ribbon is tied to the goalpost.

And in East Durham Park, the affected area is in a grassy open space. While disconnected from the main portion of the park, the space is next to a small apartment complex and essentially functions as the residents’ front yard.

Precise concentrations of lead in the soil were not listed in the initial report, but are expected to be included in the final version, due Aug. 15. That report should have sampling results for other contaminants, including some metals associated with coal ash.

Duke University researchers found areas at Walltown Park with high levels of lead (left), indicated by orange and red circles; Mid-Atlantic Associates, hired by the City of Durham, found hotspots in the same regions, represented by blue dots, initially confirming the earlier findings. (Maps: Duke University, Mid-Atlantic)
 Duke University researchers found areas at Walltown Park with high levels of lead (left), indicated by orange and red; Mid-Atlantic Associates, hired by the City of Durham, found hotspots in the same regions, represented by blue dots, initially confirming the earlier findings. An eighth spot, near the creek was recently found to have lead above the EPA Action Level.(Maps: Duke University, Mid-Atlantic)
East Durham Park, 2500 E. Main St., has high levels in an open grassy area in front of an apartment complex. Another hotspot was detected nearby at the East Durham Recreation Center, 2615 Harvard Ave. (Maps: Duke University, Mid-Atlantic)

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