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UNC study: Rogers Road wells tainted

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Just weeks after being told their neighborhood wouldn’t qualify for a federal improvement grant, the Rogers-Eubanks community has learned from a new UNC study the extent of its well and septic tank failures. The study indicates that almost half of homes surveyed that have wells had levels of fecal bacteria above federal Safe Drinking Water Act limits and two-thirds of homes with septic tanks show signs of failure.

Preliminary findings from the study conducted this summer through a partnership of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) indicate failing wells and septic tanks throughout the community. Those findings were presented to the Orange County Board of Commissioners at its Aug. 18 meeting.

Twenty-one drinking samples were collected from 20 of those homes. Fourteen households reported having operating wells, seven of which use those wells as a primary water source.

The report states:
“The median year of well construction was 1962 (with the oldest constructed in 1949 and the most recent in 2005). Signs of well vulnerability were common and included failure of the well pump (85%); cloudiness, taste or smell of well water (79%); and a need for disinfection of the well with chlorine (21%).”

All households with wells reported experiencing one or more of these well-vulnerability indicators.

Researchers also reported evidence of higher drinking-water turbidity (cloudiness) and fecal bacteria concentrations at households with wells than at those with regulated public drinking water. Six wells were found to have levels of fecal bacteria above Safe Drinking Water Act limits, one was found to have E. coli concentrations above the limits and one contained another fecal bacteria called enterococci.

According to Chris Heaney, an epidemiologist from the Gillings School and lead researcher in this investigation, fecal pollution at such levels can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
“The cause of the fecal pollution could be failing septic systems or surface runoff carrying this fecal pollution from domestic or wild animals or other sources into the groundwater supply,” Heaney said.

The survey also looked at septic tanks. Twenty-one households reported having a private septic system, the oldest of which was constructed in 1926, the most recent in 2008. Failures reported included septic discharge saturating the yard, septic back-up into the home and septic system odors. More than two-thirds of homes with private septic systems reported one or more of these failures.

The question the community would now like to see answered, said RENA spokesperson Robert Campbell, is, “How do we bring the Rogers Road community into compliance with water and sewer?”

Campbell’s answer is to provide public water and sewer lines to all homes in the community.

“There’s something causing this contamination,” he said. “We’re not trying to say what’s causing it, only that it needs to be addressed.”

Heaney has presented his findings to the county. While he said that there was no way to know at this point whether the levels of the contaminants would continue to rise or spread, he felt it was important community members be made aware.

On Tuesday, county environmental health services director Tom Konsler said he had received from Heaney the preliminary findings, hadn’t had the opportunity to review them, but intended to talk with Heaney after he had.

In July, Tara Fikes, housing and community development director for Orange County, reported to the county commission that the Rogers-Eubanks community was ineligible for federal Community Development Block Grant funding for sewer lines because its septic tanks were functioning properly. Fikes said on Tuesday she hadn’t yet seen Heaney’s findings, but that the county is in the process of surveying community residents toward seeking funding from other sources for water and sewer services.

According to the Gillings-RENA surveys, 26 of 27 households in which surveys were completed were African-American and 17 reported an annual household income of less than $30,000.

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