This story originally published online at NC Newsline.

Contractors hired by the City of Durham have found hotspots of lead-contaminated soil at two parks, as well as at the old Sign and Signal Shop, prompting officials to fence off the affected areas no later than today.

According to an update from the City published last night, these parks have lead above the EPA’s action level of 400 parts per million for playgrounds:

  • Eight soil samples taken at East Durham Park, 2500 E. Main St.
  • Seven soil samples at Walltown, 1700 Guess Road
  • Six soil samples at the old Sign and Signal Shop, next to East End Park, 1200 N. Alston Ave. The shop is fenced in and not publicly accessible, although it’s feasible that people could trespass there.

Precise concentrations were not listed in the initial report, but are expected to be included in the final version.

All of the neighborhoods where the parks contain lead are predominantly nonwhite, low-income or both.

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 contractor’s sampling showed “no potential contaminant concerns” were found in soil samples taken from playgrounds at any of the parks. And none of the samples taken at Lyon Park or Northgate exceeded the EPA’s action level, according to initial results.

Based on the preliminary findings, the City is fencing off areas in the parks where lead was detected above the EPA’s action level. The City will also install signs to mark the area, and to “provide educational and health resources,” according to the announcement.

The City hired the firm Mid-Atlantic Associates to independently sample soil at the parks after Duke University researchers found high lead levels in some areas. 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 the city had operated incinerators there until about 1950, when they were torn down.

Duke University researchers found lead hotspots in East Durham park, shown in red (left); Mid-Atlantic found high levels of lead in the same areas, represented by blue dots (right). There is an apartment building at the edge of the contaminated area of the park (lower right).(Maps: Duke University, Mid-Atlantic)
 Duke University researchers found lead hotspots in East Durham park, shown in red (left); Mid-Atlantic found high levels of lead in the same areas, represented by blue dots (right). There is an apartment building at the edge of the contaminated area of the park (lower right). (Maps: Duke University, Mid-Atlantic)

Old incinerator sites often are contaminated because of the nature of the waste that was burned; there were no environmental regulations at the time restricting the types of material.

(The researchers did not test Lyon Park because of time constraints; Northgate Park was added to the list for Mid-Atlantic sampling because historical documents showed incinerator ash had been dumped there.)

However, top city parks officials inexplicably withheld that information from the public. As early as November 2022, Dan Richter, a Duke soil scientist and faculty adviser to the graduate student testing the soil, alerted two top City parks officials, Tom Dawson and Robert Jennings, about the findings, NC Newsline previously reported.

Richter contacted them again throughout the spring of this year, with increasing levels of urgency, emails show. But neither Dawson nor Jennings informed the public, city council or city manager.

Only in June, after a resident of the Walltown neighborhood found the Duke graduate student’s thesis and its findings online, did Durham parks officials acknowledge they knew about the study. Yet behind the scenes, Parks Director Wade Walcutt was pressuring Toddi Steelman, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, to sit on the information. On June 5, Walcutt asked Steelman not to disclose the data to the public unless she cleared it with the city; Steelman declined.

In a public statement issued June 7, City Manager Wanda Page said she didn’t know about the contamination until Walltown residents brought it to her attention.

Even after the Duke results became public and the City hired Mid-Atlantic, Durham officials continued to downplay the university researchers’ work. Signs at the sampling sites did not mention the word “lead,” nor explained why the testing was being done.

Two maps showing high levels of lead at the city's Old Sign and Signal Shop, 1200 N. Alston Ave. The left map shows sampling results taken by Duke University researchers; the right map indicates sampling results taken by Mid-Atlantic Associates, hired by the City of Durham. The hotspots are in the same area of both maps.
 The old city Sign and Signal Shop at East End Park: Duke University researchers found high levels of lead there, indicated in orange (left) and so did Mid-Atlantic Associates, hired by the City of Durham (right). The hotspots are represented by blue dots. (Maps: Duke University, Mid-Atlantic)

An insert in city residents’ monthly water bills justified the independent soil sampling by noting “the City received a report from a Duke University student that warranted follow-up sampling.” Again, the word “lead” was omitted.

Over the past six weeks, dozens of Durham residents have attended community meetings held at Lyon Park and the Holton Career Center, where they have expressed concern over the health of their children who have played in the parks. Other long-time residents, now middle-aged and elderly, are worried they were exposed to the lead as children.

So far the Durham County Health Department has not offered to test children’s blood for lead. At a previous public meeting, County Health Director Rodney Jenkins told residents to instead contact their primary care doctor.

Residents also wonder if private property, such as yards and gardens, near the affected parks has been contaminated.

Mid-Atlantic is expected to issue its final report by Aug. 15. That document will include additional analysis of each of the hotspots, as well as recommendations for short-term and long-term solutions to address the contamination.

The City plans to host three in-person community meetings: one before the final report is published, a second at the time of its publication, and a third after its release.

Durham officials will publicize the dates through neighborhood groups, on the parks and recreation webpage and through social media.

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