Walking 100 yards behind Brendan Love's home in Durham's Northside neighborhood is like searching for buried treasure. That is, if used syringes, test tubes, X-ray machines, operating tables, computers and other veterinary waste count as treasure.
"Here we've got some kind of exam table and cages and this tank," Love says, poking through brush, his 6-month-old son, Malcolm, strapped to his stomach. "The farther you go back is where it starts getting really creepy."
This lot in the 100 block of East Murray Avenue is adjacent to a vacant building at 2911 N. Roxboro St. The home, built in 1928, had been converted to a veterinary clinic, which has since closed.
Love picks up a bent and rusty needle. "Look at that. Lovely," he says. "This whole pile is just dirt and crud mixed into it."
The illegal dump lies near a stream that feeds Ellerbe Creek, which runs west to east across the width of Durham County. This week, after the Indy inquired about the dump, the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services Department (NIS) issued a formal notice that gives property owner John Tran 10 days to begin cleaning up the junk or face a lien. A lien would place a legal hold on the property, preventing it from being sold or transferred until Tran complied with its requirements.
"It looked like someone just took all the stuff and pushed it over there," says Rick Hester, assistant director of NIS, who inspected the site Monday. "Obviously, it's veterinary stuff and that's what used to go in that building."
According to property records, Karen and Edwin Robertson sold Tran the building in August 2002. Minutes from the N.C. Veterinary Medical Board confirm that Karen Robertson operated Bragtown Veterinary Clinic, which was listed at that address but has since closed.
Karen Robertson now works at Alexander at the Park Veterinary Hospital. Robertson said she closed the business before the building was sold. "What I had moved with me," she says. The sale was complicated by a divorce and she did not return to the property.
"I can't imagine that it's been there 10 years," she says. "That doesn't even make sense."
In fact, it was six years after the sale of the building to Tran that Love heard bulldozers on the lot. Love investigated and said he saw the piles of waste and called the city but did not receive a response until earlier this year—after emailing members of neighborhood and Ellebre Creek Watershed Association (ECWA) listservs.
Tran, who also owns an adjacent building that houses Saigon Grill, said he is unaware of the waste.
"I don't see anything," he said. "The people are jealous in the neighborhood. They call the city too many times."
It's hard to believe that Tran doesn't know about the dump, considering NIS this year has sent him four notices about the house on the same lot.
In January, the city warned Tran the building at 2911 N. Roxboro St. was "dilapidated and if allowed to remain as it is could constitute a Public Safety threat to citizens." He was given 15 days to board up the property and clean outside areas.
In February, the city found dead trees and limbs, junk and debris on the property and gave Tran 10 days to clean it up.
And in March, the city notified Tran that it would hold a hearing on complaints about a partially collapsed roof, rotted siding, deck and framing, and the claim that the "property is an eyesore and a public nuisance to this neighborhood."
Tran did clean up paint cans and trailers full of construction waste. "We took it out; everything is clean," says Tran, who describes himself as a "handyman."
But during the February visit, city inspectors missed the veterinary waste that is obscured by trees and piled down a hill 50 yards behind the building.
"When we went out there, we didn't go way down in the bottom because you can't see down there. That's a deep, deep lot," Hester says. "Now that it's on our radar, we will send out a letter and tell him he's got to get something done."
This week's warning, dated March 27, gives Tran, a Cary resident, another 10 days to clean up the medical waste or face a $250 administrative fee, a $100 civil penalty on the first day and $10 per day each day thereafter.
Tran says he plans to rent the building once he cleans it up.
ECWA Executive Director Chris Dreps, who was in Central America on business with his wife when Love sent emails to the organization in January, encouraged his colleagues to investigate.
"Some folks went out and confirmed that there was something pretty nasty dumped out there and it was big," he says.
Dreps says trash collections such as this one, only 10 feet away from a tributary that runs southwest and joins the creek, are common. Earlier this week, someone chucked 10 bags of trash into the association's beaver preserve in the creek.
"These things happen a lot in Ellerbe Creek. It's probably less than it used to be, but these things concern us," Dreps says. "Unfortunately, there is a whole culture in Durham and probably all over the United States of just finding the most convenient way to dispose of your trash when no one is looking. I guess it's a way to save money for people."
Love is alarmed about the dump for three reasons: the proximity of the waste to a running stream, the impact to neighborhood property values and the potential danger to children who might play in the junk.
Love says he is relieved that city officials are on the case. He was concerned for neighbors, the creek and his son. "If we are here for a couple of years, he's going to want to start exploring," Love says. "If I was a kid, it's where I'd be.
"I think the squeaky wheel gets the oil," Love says. "It goes to show the power of networking. I'm glad it's going to be resolved."
Intern Andrew Branch contributed to this story.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gone to the dogs."