A blue Chevrolet Apache, one of dozens of abandoned vintage cars, is fading, its windows shattered. Toilets litter the ground like porcelain tombstones. Rust-covered metal drums mingle with dead leaves. Decaying wooden shacks, their roofs slouched with age, sit amid piles of wooden debris. And a piece of metal juts, like the snout of some rusty Lochness Monster, from a nearby pond.

Technically speaking, no landfills are in operation in Orange County. The last one, on Eubanks Road, closed last summer for municipal solid waste. But people take their garbage to this unmarked dump off of Bethel Hickory Grove Church Roadlocated within the University Lake watershed west of Chapel Hill and Carrboro town limits. It exists apparently without permit, without environmental safeguards and, until now, without public scrutiny.

“We have an active unregulated landfill smack in the middle of the watershed,” says Jim Flanagan, a worried neighbor who initially reported the site to the INDY last week. “There’s just this disconnect between all of the regulations in place to protect the watershed.”

After the INDY called the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) asking about the mysterious dumping ground, officials visited the site and opened an investigation.

County land records list the landowners as Joseph Lee Parrish and Melvin Parrish, members of a longtime Chapel Hill farming family with dozens of acres in rural Orange County. The family, which has a background in grading, excavating and hauling, could not be reached to comment.

The dumping ground is located at the end of Parrish Road, a rugged, dirt lane extending from Bethel Hickory Grove Church Road. There are no signs or fences. Debris is scattered with no discernible plan. It’s unclear who dumps these items at the Parrish Road site, but neighbors say they frequently see large trucks going in and out.

According to DENR officials, agency staff visited the site Monday and determined the landowners appear to be depositing construction and land-clearing debris in an open dump, without a state-required permit.

“It is too early to tell where the investigation will lead,” said DENR spokeswoman Cathy Akroyd, adding investigators are collecting evidence. It’s uncertain when the agency will complete its work as they were not aware of this dump.

But Michael Harvey, a supervisor with the Orange County Planning Department, said his office has been eyeing the site for more than a decade. Yet still it endures. Harvey could not say exactly why.

“There is a history of several different forms of operations out there,” Harvey said. “Whether or not they predate our ordinances, whether he has illegally expanded it, is a subject of great debate. It’s something that I, quite bluntly, haven’t wrapped my head around because I’ve got conflicting information.”

Under current county rules, landfills such as this one would likely require a Class A special use permit from the county, triggering a public hearing and a vote by the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

However, Harvey said county ordinances allow such dumps to continue, provided they are not expanded, if they began prior to the county ordinance. Harvey said last week that it’s unclear which came firstthe landfill or the ordinance.

County planning documents show landfill facilities must meet rigorous standards for disposal and containment of waste. They must offer fencing and gates, as well as landscape buffers, signage and a detailed description of site operations.

State and county officials said they could find no such documents for the Parrish Road landfill.

Craig Benedict, Orange County planning director, said this landfill would not be allowed in the watershed today. If DENR determines the dump violates state regulations, the perpetrators could be given 30 to 120 days to make changes or face fines or criminal charges.

The impacts of an unregulated landfill could be wide-ranging, according to solid waste experts. These dumps are linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, habitat and wetland destruction, said Rhonda Sherman, a solid waste expert at N.C. State University’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

And, because of deeply embedded trash, they pose a fire hazard, according to Dennis Shackelford, a DENR district supervisor for solid waste.

“Historically, landfills are basically holes in the ground where people throw their trash,” Sherman said. “It wasn’t until the 1960s that people finally realized, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re polluting our water, ground and surface water.’”

Modern landfill regulations emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sherman said, as lawmakers and the public became aware of the dangers.

Water contamination may be of particular importance to this Parrish Road site. According to county planning maps, the dump is located in the “critical” watershed for University Lake, a 450-million-gallon reservoir west of Carrboro that, along with OWASA’s Cane Creek and Quarry reservoirs, provides drinking water for roughly 80,000 people in the region.

The “critical” designation, which is proffered by DENR, measures proximity to the reservoir, allowing planners to impose more stringent development requirements.

“There’s a really good reason that landfills are regulated,” said Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the N.C. Sierra Club, an environmental protection group. “Something like this should certainly be a big concern to anyone who lives in Orange County and drinks water from University Lake.”

Most neighbors of the Parrish family who spoke to the INDY Monday dismissed concerns about the environmental impacts. “I imagine if it’s a fire hazard now, it would have been a fire hazard 25 years ago,” said John Landreth, a longtime Bethel Hickory Grove Church Road resident who says he did not know about the dump.

Joyce Presslar, who lives within a half-mile of the dumping ground, said she would only be “minimally concerned” if there was a fire.

“It’s kind of a community out here where people live and let live,” she said. “You know the old joke. If you mow your lawn and you find a car, you might be a redneck. We kind of fall into that category. We’re kind of a casual redneck community here.”

But Flanagan insists his neighbors should be worried. If not for themselves, for the entire community’s water supply.

“I don’t think there’s any bad guy or good guy,” he said. “It’s just something going on that shouldn’t be. There are no winners.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Trash talk.”