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UNC expansion worries neighbors

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Rural Orange County residents are troubled by news that UNC-Chapel Hill administrators are acquiring additional property around a controversial animal-holding facility west of Chapel Hill.

UNC Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Bob Lowman wrote in a Sept. 6 message to Bingham neighbors that the university has purchased one property adjacent to the animal facility and is in the process of buying another. Once completed, the latter will mark the third UNC purchase surrounding the Bingham Facility in two years.

"These purchases are not being made to expand operations at the Bingham Facility," Lowman wrote. "We are not seeking to purchase additional property and only considered these two purchases because of their strategic locations immediately adjacent to developed areas of the Bingham Facility."

Lowman said the properties will buffer neighboring residential properties from the building, which houses research animals, primarily dogs.

Despite Lowman's assurances, neighbors aren't convinced.

"We see them expanding and we don't see them acknowledging that this is an expansion," said Laura Streitfeld, executive director of Preserve Rural Orange, an advocacy organization that has protested UNC's Bingham activities for years.

UNC officials have been under fire from rural Orange County neighbors and environmental advocates who point to a chemical spill and multiple leaks of treated wastewater as reasons for concern.

UNC paid a $15,000 state fine after a series of illegal leaks and discharges at Bingham in 2009 and 2010, including one instance in which site workers reportedly took weeks to notify regulators of a suspected leak. UNC returned $14.5 million in federal grant money and nixed a planned expansion following the controversy.

Streitfeld said UNC considers Bingham a 57-acre property, but has not included recent land buys. Lowman maintains only the 57 acres are part of the facility.

Meanwhile, Streitfeld says UNC plans to demolish structures on the purchased tracts, indicating officials have intentions other than renting the homes.

That's not true, said Lowman, who pointed out the university is renting or plants to rent homes on two of the three tracts; the third tract is undeveloped.

"I'm afraid that I just part company with Ms. Streitfeld on a number of these issues," Lowman told the Indy Tuesday. "I think that she's blowing this totally out of proportion at this point."

The ongoing consternation over UNC's Bingham plans comes as the university seeks state permission to reboot its sewage treatment facility. UNC is transporting its waste off-site today, but wants to resume its former practice of treating wastewater on the property and spraying it on nearby university-owned fields.The plan, which includes construction of a 1.2 million gallon storage pond, is expected to cost UNC $900,000. Meanwhile, vexed neighbors are demanding a full environmental impact statement before state water officials approve the facility.

N.C. Division of Water Quality spokeswoman Susan Massengale said the public comment period for UNC's modified wastewater permit concluded in early September following an August public hearing.

She said DWQ staff is reviewing those comments and will prepare a report for the DWQ director, at which point the director will vote up or down on the proposal.

Correction: There has been one chemical spill (not multiple spills) and multiple leaks of treated wastewater.

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