Residents of rural Orange County have requested a public hearing about University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s plans for its Bingham Facility.

The hearing, which is likely to take place early next year, will be held by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Orange County. The location has not been determined.

Preserve Rural Orange, a citizens group, asked for the hearing after learning that UNC had received state erosion control and storm water permits and filed for four additional permitsafter a university official told the group there were no new documents.

Bob Lowman, assistant vice chancellor for research, acknowledged that he had not kept residents in the loop, but that it was unintentional. “I failed to communicate as openly as often as I did previously,” he said. Lowman emphasized that the plans for the facility have not changed since they were announced earlier this year.

The Bingham Facility houses and conducts research on animals, primarily dogs, on 57 acres in rural Orange County west of Carrboro.

Residents’ mistrust of UNC stems from a pattern of miscommunication and a series of illegal discharges, leaks and chemical spills that occurred at the facility in 2009 and 2010. UNC subsequently paid a $16,000 fine to state environmental regulators.

More recently, at an October meeting residents peppered UNC officials with questions about plans for the facility. For example, a proposed new wastewater system and spray field seem large for only 10 facility employees, said Laura Streitfeld of Preserve Rural Orange, whose membership includes neighbors of the facility. In addition, at the meeting residents learned that some UNC officials had mentioned potential expansion scenarios to county officials.

Lowman said he is unaware of any such conversations; last year, UNC scrapped expansion plans and returned a $15 million federal grant that would have funded them. “We’ve made our decision and there are no plans to build anything else out there,” he said.

UNC is asking the state to approve a modified permit for a new wastewater treatment system. Previously, the facility had two systems, one for “domestic,” or human waste and the other for animal waste. Under the amended permit, the facility will use only a domestic system. Water used to wash down kennels, the amount of which UNC officials expect to be minimal, would flow into that system. UNC is changing its animal housing practices at Bingham so the dogs will be placed on dry bedding, which will then be periodically removed and landfilled. “It costs a little bit more money,” Lowman said, “but you avoid putting raw waste down the drain.”

Since some animal waste would enter the system, Streitfeld says, residents want the term “domestic waste” clarified. Residents also want assurance that the bedding will be properly disposed of and transported.

Treated wastewater would be held in nearby ponds and then sprayed onto land and in the woods. The spray field is larger than the previous one, even though the system itself is smaller, Lowman said, because new engineering reports suggest “the soil is not as porous as previously thought.”

Over time, Lowman said, the amount of water could overload the soils unless the acreage is expanded.

DENR Aquifer Protection Supervisor Jay Zimmerman, whose office is reviewing the permits, confirmed that UNC “wants to expand spray fields and use the same volume of water, but over a larger area.”

Since the original wastewater treatment system failed in 2010, UNC has been paying to pump and haul the wastewater off-site; it will continue to do so until the new system is completed and permitted, Lowman said. In addition, a new holding pond for the wastewater will be lined with clay and not plastic. In December 2009, a plastic liner leaked, discharging treated, but not sterile, wastewater into nearby Collins Creek.

UNC has also agreed to test residential wells downstream of the site.

“[UNC’s permit request] is pretty straightforward,” Zimmerman said. After DENR has issued a draft permit, the agency will schedule a public comment period and a subsequent hearing on it.

Orange County has limited authority over UNC, which is state-owned. However, Orange County Planning Director Craig Benedict said his office can regulate site plans to ensure buildings are located in compliance with local laws. Benedict said his office received UNC’s site plan last week, and it is conducting a formal review. The county is expected to announce its comments on the site plan by the end of the year.

Considering 18 percent budget cuts to the UNC system, residents wonder if it would be prudent to close the Bingham Facility altogether.

UNC discussed that possibility, Lowman said, but the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine “argued convincingly” that it could use the space.

“The big-picture issues we see,” Streitfeld said, “is a very unsustainable and expensive project to serve a few humans with an enormous wastewater treatment system.”