UNC could overhaul or even scrap the new wastewater treatment system at its Bingham Facility west of Carrboro because of several leaks and discharges within the last year.
And fixing the system could complicate UNC's National Institute of Health grant, if the university receives $15 million in federal stimulus money it requested to construct two buildings on the site. The NIH could announce the recipients as early as this week.
"I have concerns about the [wastewater system] construction and whether this was the right system to put in for this project," said Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Bob Lowman, who was recently appointed by Chancellor Holden Thorp to manage the facility. Thorp asked Lowman to be the point person after the system malfunctions and several miscommunications between UNC and neighbors of the facility.
The Bingham Facility houses and conducts research on animals, largely dogs and pigs, on 57 acres in rural Orange County. UNC plans to expand the facility and to consolidate it with the 50-year-old Frances Owen Blood Lab, which will eventually close its location near University Lake in Carrboro.
Neighbors have repeatedly told UNC they are concerned about the environmental impacts of the facility's expansion on water quality and quantity. Those concerns have turned out to be warranted. In addition to four leaks, including one that discharged treated wastewater—which is not sterile—into Collins Creek, Toluene, ethylene glycol and propylene glycol were detected in wastewater last week.
The chemicals were found in early March after facility operators smelled an "unusual odor" coming from the septic tank of the domestic wastewater system, according to a letter sent March 25 from UNC to N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Division of Water Quality.
Toluene can harm the nervous system and the kidneys; it also can cause confusion, weakness, memory loss and nausea. Inhaling high levels of toluene in a short time can cause unconsciousness or death.
Ethyl glycol and propylene glycol are used in antifreeze.
Toluene levels were so high that the Orange Sewer and Water Authority refused to accept treated wastewater from Bingham. UNC had been pumping and hauling wastewater from the facility since it shut down the wastewater system earlier this month.
The system will remain closed until McKim and Creed, a consultant firm newly hired for this project, completes its investigation of the system, likely in August. The timing is crucial. Stimulus money is intended for projects that can be finished quickly. It is uncertain if construction can begin before the consultant's investigation is finished.
Jay Zimmerman, environmental program supervisor at DENR's Division of Water Quality said the agency is still investigating the origin of the chemical spill, but speculates that it could be from a construction worker dumping paint down a drain. UNC has since hired the contractor Clean Harbor to flush and clean the wastewater system.
Zimmerman said the wastewater system is complicated and difficult to fix. "It's not atypical for situations like this. You have a system that is apparently failing and for any number of reasons. We don't fully understand why."
John Phillips of Diehl & Phillips, the original engineering firm that consulted on the wastewater treatment system, couldn't be reached for comment.
DENR has issued two notices of violations to the facility for its illegal discharges and has threatened to fine UNC $25,000 if the issues are not addressed.
Many UNC departments, including the medical school and planning, and several contractors and consultants had input on the design and implementation of the treated wastewater system. However, Lowman said, the people involved didn't share important information.
"We're finding out things UNC should have known in the first place," Lowman said. "There was a lack of communication. The decisions made sense at the time, but we needed more information."
Neighbors have been confused by conflicting information issued by UNC. For example, UNC publicly stated—and listed in its NIH grant application—there is one wastewater system for animals and one for humans. However, both handle animal waste.
UNC has also told neighbors and the media that research isn't conducted on animals at Bingham, but later reversed itself.
In the environmental impact portion of the NIH grant application, UNC stated there are no wetlands onsite. Yet contractors have begun mapping wetlands there.
An NIH spokesman said it would not be appropriate to publicly discuss UNC's grant application.
Laura Streitfeld of Preserve Rural Orange, whose membership includes neighbors of the facility, said people are "extremely concerned about the chemical contamination and the quality of their water. We don't know how long this contamination had occurred and how these spills are affecting the environment and public health."
She added that since managing this smaller system has been difficult, "it doesn't bode well for an expanded research campus."
Lowman said he wants to rethink the site expansion to make it more environmentally sustainable. "I don't know if we can afford it, but I want to look at every possibility: methane capture, complete water reclamation," he said. "We can turn what might have been a liability into an asset."