A turtle soaking up afternoon sunshine in the middle of Goose Creek stops Ray Eurquhart in his tracks. He’s been watching for new wildlife here, ever since he and his colleagues pulled the last rusty refrigerator out of this urban creek, whose oil-streaked waters used to stink up Durham’s Longmeadow Park and the backyard of Eastway Elementary School.
These days, thanks to a federal grant and a lot of intergovernmental cooperation, the upper reaches of Goose Creek run clean through North-East Central Durham, a beleaguered inner-city neighborhood with more than its fair share of industrial polluters and poverty.
The only smell wafting over the creek now is the fresh scent of the switch grass the stream rescuers planted, after installing new curves in the banks to boost oxygen levels in the water and create hospitable habitats. Frenzied minnows feast in the shallows and birds call from the trees. Schoolchildren paste anti-dumping stickers on the stormwater drains along Alston Avenue and Holloway Street, warning someone cares about this waterway, begging residents and motorists not to undo six years of work to restore this dirty urban ditch to the healthy fish-filled Neuse River tributary it used to be.
“This was a chance for us to chart a new course in Durham,” says Eurquhart, who led the Goose Creek cleanup as a member of the county Soil and Water Conservation District Board.
It wasn’t an easy project, its leaders agree. There were obstacles along the way, like when a miscommunication with school officials led to students planting trees that were too short to shade the stream. But overall, the first two phases of the Goose Creek restoration project tell a success story about how city, county, state and federal agencies partnering together–armed with $42,000 in federal grant money–reversed pollution and restored nature in one inner-city trickle that eventually joins up with Raleigh’s drinking water in Falls Lake.
But just a few hundred feet downstream, the last section of the troubled creek tells a tale without turtles–or a happy ending. Here, tiny purple wildflowers struggle up through the grid of a rusty shopping cart lodged in the silt. Chunks of asphalt tumble down the bank, leaching toxins into the scum-crusted pools. Capped cylinders pop up along the bank, marking the testing wells that monitor hazardous waste flowing through the groundwater.
In the stretch that was to be the third and final phase of Goose Creek’s cleanup, the stream instead keeps getting dirtier, thanks to old chemicals leaking from private businesses and new garbage from the City of Durham, which uses its creekside property as a dump.
Last month, the conservation board members surrendered to both obstacles, closing the last chapter in Goose Creek’s revival on a sad note. On April 29, Chairman Gordon Neal Diem wrote to leaders of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, giving back the $30,000 state grant meant to clean up the last section, where Tecstar Electro Systems’ factory and Durham’s rubble piles shadow the banks.
“There was a lot of optimism about what was going to be accomplished in Goose Creek,” says Diem. “There was a lot accomplished. But now it’s coming to an inglorious end.”
Behind the low buildings that make up Tecstar’s factory, an employee emerges from a back door for a post-lunch cigarette break. He ambles out of the security gate and perches on a little footbridge, frowning at the plastic grocery bags and Styrofoam sandwich boxes swirling in the muddy water.
“Who is taking care of this creek?” he asks Eurquhart, overhearing a little bit about the project. “Whose responsibility is this?”
“It’s everyone’s responsibility,” answers the conservation board member who has been Goose Creek’s biggest champion. “Yours. Mine. The City of Durham. Tecstar’s. The state. Local residents.”
The footbridge marks the end of the cleanup that was so successful upstream. Here, the electronics manufacturer that formerly occupied the building, Honeywell Inc., used to store barrels of chemicals in the creek bank, using their steel bodies to control erosion, according to state regulators. When Honeywell sold the building at 921 Holloway Street to Tecstar in 1998, an environmental audit found metals, oils and solvents in the groundwater, says Rick Bolich of the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) groundwater division.
Honeywell, the former owner, and Tecstar, its airplane components spinoff, have cooperated in a major cleanup effort, Bolich says, including removing all of the contaminated soil. But stemming the groundwater pollution has been more difficult, he says, complicated by hazardous waste from another industry. Across Calvin Street–and uphill–from the factory and the creek, the Church of Ephesus now occupies a small cinderblock building that was home to a dry-cleaning business for nearly four decades before the church bought it in 1997. Investigators taking samples at Honeywell found that the groundwater now washing downhill–and expected to reach the creek within three years–contains hazardous concentrations of chlorinated dry-cleaning solvents. State regulators are pursuing sanctions against the dry-cleaning operators, a DENR spokeswoman says.
Because of the complications, Honeywell’s cleanup of its former factory is taking a lot longer than anticipated, and all the parties agreed it made no sense to start cleaning up the stream until the hazardous waste flow was halted.
In the meantime, state regulators told the company to move the metal drums from the bank. Company officials then installed a permanent layer of boulders called riprap from the edge of the water all the way up the bank to the company’s lawn, along most of its property line. That move, while aimed at complying with state water quality regulations, contradicted the plans of the cleanup crew, who had planned to restore the “natural course” of the stream, says Brent Bogue, a conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who helped design the creek’s makeover.
The environmentalists also had trouble reaching the creek to do their work, Eurquhart says, because company officials wanted them to re-install the security fence at the end of every workday.
“We’d have spent a lot of our $30,000 just moving the fence,” Eurquhart says.
A few hundred feet downstream from Tecstar, a white dump truck with the City of Durham’s seal emblazoned on its doors backs up to a 12-foot-high pile of dirt peppered with chunks of inky asphalt. The bed of the truck rises and the load falls, beefing up the collection of dirt, asphalt and broken concrete stormwater pipes.
This parcel of land at 1100 North Alston Ave. houses the city’s sign and signal shop, where workers paint and repair municipal signs and store equipment to stripe roads. Behind the sign shop, a gravel and dirt road leads downhill to a large clearing in the woods next to Goose Creek. The city uses this land as a “staging area” for storing rubble from road projects and other trash, including a pile of rusted metal machinery, before hauling it to a landfill. As part of the cleanup plan, Soil and Water Conservation District Board members asked the city to make changes at its Alston Avenue site, Eurquhart says.
The city removed some of the rubble, shifted some of the piles further from the water and agreed to install silt fencing at the edge of the clearing to block erosion.
“We’ve been progressively getting stuff out of there,” Public Works Director Kathryn Kalb says, adding that the city has spent $20,000 moving trash from the site. “We’ve been working to make sure there’s no impact on the environment there.”
Despite the changes, the city officials and the Goose Creek project leaders fundamentally disagree on whether the dump endangers the creek and exactly what needs to be done.
“Remediation, to them, is like a little cream in your coffee,” says Eurquhart. “I don’t want coffee at all; I want something different.” E-mails between Eurquhart and various city officials–including Kalb and former assistant city manager John Pederson–dating back to last summer show the county soil and water board making its case for the creek’s protection, including asking for a grass buffer to be planted, the scrap-metal pile to be moved and other measures that still have not been implemented.
Kalb says the group never asked the city directly to stop using the dump, and the pile of metal is still there because the city purchasing director has been unable to get a contractor bid for moving it.
“It’s an ongoing thing, and we’re continuing to address it,” says Kalb, who was surprised to hear the Goose Creek project was threatened by the city’s use of its land. “I had not heard there was still an issue there,” she says.
John Cox is the city’s storm water engineer, whose job partly is to help protect urban waterways from pollution. Cox recently convinced the City Council to spend $15,210 on a regional effort to educate Triangle residents about protecting streams in the Neuse River basin–including Goose Creek–from contaminants such as lawn fertilizer and motor oil. Cox studies indicators such as plant and animal life and levels of dissolved oxygen in creeks and streams all over the city, and says he has seen a lot of improvement in the health of Goose Creek since the county’s conservation board started its project in 1996.
“That has been a pretty decent success story,” says Cox. “For the amount of money they had, it’s been remarkable what they’ve done.”
Ironically, the city government that’s storing waste next to the creek has also supported its cleanup. In January 2001, the city manager reported that workers in the solid waste and public works departments were collecting debris from the creek as part of the public effort to revitalize North-East Central Durham’s neighborhoods, and the city lent the conservation staff some heavy equipment during work upstream.
Cox also helped by pinpointing pollution sources, such as one house whose sewer pipes opened directly into the creek, causing fecal coliform bacteria pollution, the most common contaminant in urban waterways.
Cox also alerted workers at the dumpsite last fall that the protective fence was installed incorrectly. Fine-mesh silt fencing, when its bottom edge is buried in the ground, catches debris and helps control erosion. But even last week, the fencing still flaps in the breeze in many places, and the steep bank down to the water is littered with chunks of asphalt and concrete that have slipped underneath.
Still, he says, Durham’s waterways have bigger pollution problems than the city’s own Public Works Department.
“Our whole focus is working on the worst thing, and then moving on to the next worst thing,” Cox says, stressing the more severe damage caused by sewage leaks. “In the scale of things, our monitoring data doesn’t show that this is any worse than any other location in the city.”
But combined with the problems at Honeywell, the city’s unwillingness to relocate its rubble meant the soil and water board’s hands were tied. The board “would be wasting the state’s money,” says Eddie Culberson, the county conservation director, if it did not return $30,000 to the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The U.S. Department of Agriculture conservationists who were also overseeing the creek cleanup agreed.
“As long as the City of Durham continues the current use of this land, stream rehabilitation in this section does not seem to be a feasible option,” Bogue, the USDA staffer, wrote to the county board April 26, recommending halting the project.
Statewide, it’s unusual but not unprecedented for a grant recipient to return money to the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, says spokeswoman Lisa Schell. But in Durham, those who wanted a happy ending for Goose Creek say it’s frustrating to lose an environmental battle with their own government.
“What could have been one of the truly outstanding national success stories in urban stream restoration is grinding to a halt, not because the stream restoration project was flawed, but because of the actions of the municipal government,” says Diem, the board chair. “I think that is sad and that it is a shame.”