‘We’ve gotten used to a nightmare:’ Durham development pollutes, damages property

"Durham County resident Susanna Strasser speaks about her experiences with construction and development." Photo is Courtesy of Pam Andrews with Preserve Rural Durham. 

Monday, April 8, 2024

By Emily Chambliss

In 2022, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Susanna Strasser put framed family photos in her new rental home while the walls shook around her. 

The floor vibrated beneath her feet, and the few belongings she brought into the home rattled in their boxes. Smoke drifted through her backyard from the construction site behind the 1300 block of Junction Road in Durham, N.C. 

Construction in the area was nothing new, so Strasser paid it no mind. But weeks later, when dark brown, sour-smelling water poured from her faucet, she knew something was wrong. 

As the fifth largest county in North Carolina, Durham County saw over 25% population growth in the last 14 years, welcoming over 60,000 new residents in that time. To accommodate this growth, the city plans to expand into rural Durham. 

In November, the Durham City Council voted in favor of amendments to the Simplified Code for Affordable Housing. The code removed many barriers to development, and opponents claimed it encouraged gentrification of the area. Urban developers can acquire farmland and forests in Durham County, and petition the city for voluntary annexation of the land into the city. In November, the city council approved the controversial Perry Farm project, allowing McAdams civil engineering firm to convert 280-plus acres of forested land into 665 new residential units in southeast Durham. 

In the firm’s rezoning application, it designated 3 percent of the units as affordable housing at 80 percent area median income for 30 years. This is less than 20 affordable units for low-income residents. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a family of four is considered low-income if they bring in less than $30,000 a year. Buyers at 80 percent AMI in Durham would make about $76,000 a year for a family of four. 

“Public officials and developers want growth in Durham,” Pamela Andrews, founder of Preserve Rural Durham, said. “They want the money. They want the taxes. They don’t care about anything else.”

With Durham’s population expected to increase by over 100,000 in the next 20 years, the city council and the Durham Board of County Commissioners have promoted high density housing as a way for all Durham residents to live affordably in the area. High density housing, like apartments and townhomes, increases pollution and pressure on the natural environment. 

High density development strips land of trees, roots and other vegetation. Deforestation and infrastructure expansion increase the risk of severe flooding and create urban “heat islands.” Structures like roads and buildings re-emit heat from the sun at a higher rate than natural landscapes. These “heat islands” contribute to higher daytime temperatures and increased air pollution. Environmental concerns continue to grow as new annexations push city boundaries further into Durham County. 

“We need a promise from Durham that they’re going to protect our waters and our environment,” Samantha Krop, Neuse riverkeeper and director of advocacy at grassroots organization Sound Rivers said. “And we don’t have that right now.” 

During construction, developers blast away rocks to make room for the concrete slab foundations houses are built on. Uncontrolled blasting can produce structural damage to neighboring buildings and structures. The city of Durham has strict blasting regulations, requiring the notification of nearby residents and a safety plan. Durham County does not require either. 

This construction can also contribute to water pollution from metals, chemicals and sediment eroded by deforestation, blasting and drilling. 

On Sept. 7, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of grassroots organization Sound Rivers to stop ongoing pollution into Martin Branch Creek, which connects into major drinking water source Falls Lake. The lawsuit alleges Clayton Properties Group, Inc. has committed more than 16 Clean Water Act violations in its development in southeast Durham. 

Water samples collected by Krop show the developer has discharged sediment into the creek at over 20 times over permit limit. This excess sediment has turned creek water bright orange. The SELC notified Clayton Properties Group of their intent to sue in May 2023, but the lawsuit claims water samples collected 60 days after notification “confirmed” ongoing violations. 

“We weren’t receiving the response we were hoping for in terms of stopping the pollution,” Krop said. “We’re hoping to encourage developers to value and protect our creeks. We believe we can have responsible development that provides housing that Durham needs while also protecting its water resources.” 

Krop said Durham’s environmental issues come down to a lack of development oversight, and insufficient regulation enforcement. 

In October, Sound Rivers filed a lawsuit against Mungo Homes, claiming the development company violated the Clean Water Act over 20 times as it builds homes along Olive Branch Road. 

“What has happened to Durham that we don’t care about our water systems?” Andrews said. “That used to be taboo. It makes no sense.” 

Much of Durham falls into critical watersheds, or areas where water supply protection is considered crucial, like Falls Lake and Jordan Lake. Durham developers have, according to the Sound Rivers lawsuits, polluted essential sources of water for drinking, irrigation, flood control or hydroelectric projects.  

Susanna Strasser, who said she has been without clean water since November 2022, claims excessive construction and development is the cause. 

On the 1300 block of Junction Road, near Walmart Supercenter and Glenn Elementary School, many homes have been without clean water since their wells failed around Thanksgiving 2022.  

Preserve Rural Durham and residents of the area said the issues started weeks after local developer KB Homes blasted rock behind their homes. Strasser noticed weak water pressure and a “horrible” smell she described as rotten eggs. 

The water came out of sinks and showers a dark brown. Strasser tried using a water filter, but said it did not last a day. Residents believe the nearby blasting collapsed their wells and ruptured surrounding sewer lines, contaminating their remaining water supply. Despite efforts from landlord Elmo Yancey, little has been done to mitigate the issue. 

“The county [does] not care what’s happening. The city [does] not care what’s happening,” Strasser said. “We don’t have the money for them to care.”  

Residents can only use the water for the toilet. They have been purchasing bottled water or collecting rainwater for cleaning, showering, cooking and drinking. Lludiz Velazquez said her daughter complained of dry, itchy skin and rashes before halting showering in the well water. 

“I’m sure it was that terrible, nasty water,” she said. 

Several neighbors reported the same issue. Now, Velazquez and her family buy water from Walmart, heat it on the stove and pour water on themselves from a container as they sit on a medical shower chair. The family stopped showering every day, reducing to twice a week. 

“We will shower three times if we can afford it,” Velazquez said. 

She said it embarasses her daughter at school to be without water, and that she gets excited to use an actual shower when staying with family. 

“She’ll say ‘Mommy I wish we can move to another house,’ I say ‘We cannot afford to live in another house,’” Velazquez said. 

Velazquez collects rainwater for dishes and buys the rest in gallon jugs. According to a study by DigDeep, a nonprofit aimed at improving universal clean water access, purchasing drinking water costs a family an average of $1,350 a year, or about $112.50 per month. The average water bill in Durham comes out to approximately $40 a month for 5,000 gallons of water for all uses. 

The DigDeep study states households without adequate water and sanitation access spend over $15,000 a year on healthcare costs and other related expenses. Seventy-nine year old Strasser said the water has deteriorated her health. 

“I have to eat out every day. I can’t lift the water I bought from the store. I can’t always get to my son’s house to use his water, especially when it’s cold,” she said. “So I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

In May 2023, Durham County provided a tanker truck to supply water to the homes with failed wells. Residents said there wasn’t enough water for everyone. In November, the county removed the tanker without providing a permanent solution. 

A few days before the removal of the tanker, Strasser said she received a bill for the water because it was on her property. She said the bill charged her $500 per day. 

“I don’t know where they think I am going to get that money,” Strasser said. “The people who did the damage haven’t had to pay nothing,” 

The Durham Voice reached out to Durham County about the issue, but received no response. 

Few options remain for Junction Road residents to regain access to safe water. The property owners can petition for annexation of the area into the city of Durham and petition for an extension of the city’s water services. Or, they can petition for annexation and extend the water line at their own cost. It can take weeks to months to design, assess and install any kind of water line extension.  

Velazquez reached out to the Durham City Council about a quicker solution. She said city council members expressed interest in solving the issue; even going as far as to visit the Junction Road homes for themselves. Velazquez has not heard from any council members since, despite several attempts to contact them. 

“Lot’s of promises. Lot’s of hope,” she said. “But still there is nothing.” 

Almost a year and a half after their wells failed, residents of Junction Road have not found a solution. Renters and property owners continue to hope the issue will soon be resolved. 

“Nobody is fighting for us. We are the only ones fighting for us,” Velazquez said. “It’s been a nightmare. But we’ve gotten used to a nightmare.” 

Edited by Phillip Le

One thought on “‘We’ve gotten used to a nightmare:’ Durham development pollutes, damages property

  1. Ann Anderson says:

    This is destroying people’s homes and lives. No one is thinking about our environment and the effects this is going to have on it. Nothing but Greed.

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