Last summer, concerned neighbors of UNC's Bingham Facility walked the nearby wooded private land and pointed out the creek, streams and other environmentally sensitive areas on and adjacent to university property.
Then, as now, neighbors were troubled by potential environmental impacts of the facility's storage ponds and spray fields that held or dispersed treated wastewater from the animal research facility in rural Orange County.
Then, as now, the neighbors were right.
After a winter and spring in which the storage ponds leaked, pipes broke, illegal discharges entered the creek and hazardous chemicals were detected in the wastewater treatment system, neighbors and state environmental regulators have learned that portions of the wetlands at the Bingham Facility have been damaged.
In addition, Orange County officials recently notified UNC that it doesn't have the proper permit for its septic system. And in light of the many state and local violations looming over the facility, now the university wants to keep secret the drawings and plans for the failed—and expensive—wastewater treatment system.
"It seems to be one thing after another," said Cliff Leath, whose property abuts the facility. "They can't seem to get ahead of the situation."
According to an April 28 letter to UNC from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, part of the wetlands were covered during construction for the facility's major expansion, including the wastewater treatment system.
The letter states that a storage pond, a road, an irrigation line and a portion of the wastewater spray field filled parts of the wetlands.
DENR issued UNC a notice of violation, which can carry a penalty of $25,000 per day, per violation for encroaching on the wetlands without federal and state permits. The letter also asks UNC for an explanation and a plan to restore the wetlands. UNC can choose not to restore the areas, but it would need a permit to do so, which could require the university to offset the damage by restoring environmentally sensitive areas elsewhere.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues the federal permit, also has jurisdiction over the wetlands.
"I would anticipate this is a fairly easy site to restore," said Danny Smith, regional surface water protection supervisor with the Division of Water Quality.
Wetlands and their soils and plants help filter sediment and pollutants. They also provide habitats for wildlife. "From a water quality standpoint, wetlands have a lot of functions," Smith said. "When you remove or fill them, that function is removed. That's why we care."
Bob Lowman, UNC associate vice chancellor for research, said that some of the incursions were small—the road infringed on only .04 acres of wetlands—and the university could have received a permit to cover those portions.
"Others were larger," Lowman added, "and we could have changed plans."
In a grant application to the National Institutes of Health, UNC specifically stated no wetlands were on the property. The NIH has since awarded UNC nearly $15 million for additional construction on the site.
Lowman acknowledged that wetlands had not been mapped until he took over the project in February. He said UNC hired an expert to map the wetlands, and the university notified environmental officials when the areas were discovered.
"We turned ourselves in as part of trying to do what's right," Lowman said. "It's evidence that we're taking control of the situation and actively seeking other problems. I don't like to see another violation. It's disturbing to me."
Orange County officials have limited authority over the university. But they did exercise their power last month when a county planning staff member conducted a site inspection to verify that the construction complied with the zoning permit.
The property is zoned agricultural residential, which restricts the size of wastewater disposal systems. According to an April 9 letter sent from the county to UNC, planning staff discovered that the wastewater disposal system is designed to handle more than 3,000 gallons per day—and requires a special use permit from the county that UNC does not have.
Michael Harvey, current planning supervisor for Orange County, said the project as conceived may not have required a special use permit, but the scope has significantly expanded over the past six years. "This is one of the implications for long-term developments," Harvey said. "We've reached a point in the development where they need this."
The Bingham Facility's expansion has been beset by problems and miscommunications since at least 2008, although neighbors have learned about them only in the last six months.
Neighbors have often complained to UNC about its lack of transparency on the project. After pressure from Preserve Rural Orange, earlier this spring the university began sharing letters and documentation with the group—although sometimes not until weeks after an incident.
For example, only in a passing conversation with a UNC official did Laura Streitfeld of Preserve Rural Orange learn the university has stored 60,000 gallons of chemically contaminated water in steel storage tanks on the property. "We get bits of information, but we're not getting straight information and we're not getting it in a timely fashion," Streitfeld said.
(University officials told the Indy the tanks are inspected daily and are designed to safely store liquids including diesel fuel and waste products. UNC is waiting for DENR to grant it a permit to dispose of the water. Clean Harbors, a company specializing in hazardous waste cleanup and removal, will haul the tanks to a special facility, possibly as soon as next week.)
Now neighbors feel stonewalled again: UNC lawyers are asking DENR not to make public the plans and schematics of the facility's wastewater treatment system, based on a broad reading of a state law.
According to Jay Zimmerman, regional supervisor for the Aquifer Protection Section, DENR requested documents showing the pre-construction schematics for the system and details of its installation. With this documentation, DENR hopes to determine if a faulty design or installation may have caused the treatment system to fail. "We want to know what, if any, changes they made from the original draft versus what was put in the ground," Zimmerman said.
UNC is claiming such information is proprietary and exempt from the state's open records act because of state security concerns. Since 2001's terrorist attack, some floor plans and schematics for sensitive buildings are kept private—water systems for emergency command centers, for example. UNC is arguing the wastewater treatment system of a facility that conducts animal research on muscular dystrophy, diabetes and heart disease deserves equal protection.
UNC and DENR lawyers are scheduled to discuss the issue today.
Meanwhile, UNC is speeding ahead to finish construction designs for the expansion in order to comply with the NIH grant. The grant uses federal stimulus money, which is earmarked for "shovel-ready" projects that can begin quickly. UNC officials say construction designs must be submitted to the NIH by July 31. Construction bids would start in January 2012, with construction finished by July 2013.
Given the facility's checkered seven-year history, neighbors are concerned that UNC is unprepared to undertake a major expansion. "Given the series of violations and malfunctions that we know about, we want UNC to cease operations," said Streitfeld of Preserve Rural Orange. "Let the county and state assess the impact to the environment and public health. Is such an ecologically sensitive area the place to do this?"