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Community Wins Clean Water,
Targets Dumpsite

Sunset Acres teams up with NC Fair Share

by Samuel Cole


When we turn on the faucet for a glass of water we expect it to be reasonably clear and free from objectionable odor. And most of us don't have to keep a bottle Toxicof Clorox by the sink to treat it before we drink. We receive our water through a municipal water treatment plant and we can ignore (perhaps), the growing worry of polluted drinking water. But low income communities who rely on their own private water wells can neither ignore nor protect themselves from groundwater pollution.

One such community exists no more than 15 miles from our state capitol. Sunset Acres is a small Wake county community of 200 mobile and frame type homes lining a northern parcel of dirt roads in Holly Springs. What is supposed to be tap water in Sunset Acres is a foul fluid, brown and disgusting to smell. Of 117 water wells tested there, only 36 had water deemed safe to drink. Eighty-one wells were contaminated with dangerous levels of coliform bacteria, and 10 contained significant levels of E. coli bacteria. The water is unsuitable even for washing vegetables.

Although the residents of Sunset Acres themselves lack safe water to drink, they can see, only a few blocks away, expensive estate style houses with lush irrigated lawns. Lakeview Estates and Sunset Ridge are recent subdivisions of Holly Springs, and together almost surround the parched community of Sunset Acres. Wealthy commuters are attracted to the $200,000 to $700,000 homes with such ammenities as sunken baths, large lots, a private 18 hole golf course designed by John LaFoy, and an attractive 12.5 acre lake with private club house and walking trails. A fountain adds a luxuriously hydrated effect with rainbows of clean water shot high into the air.

The source of all this safe drinking water is the municipal water treatment plant of Holly Springs. Since 1990, when Holly Springs had only 900 residents, it has become a commuter suburbia of 6000. Although most of the new residents are 45 minutes from their Research Triangle jobs at Nortel, IBM, and Caterpillar, they appreciate the clear lake, the woods, and the small town atmosphere of Holly Springs. And Holly Springs appreciates them—it reached around Sunset Acres to annex the new golf-cart subdivisions. Surrounded by houses furnished with pure city water, Sunset Acres remained thirsty, invisible, and seemingly helpless.

Helpless, that is, until the summer of '95 when the public health advocacy group, North Carolina Fair Share (NCFS) got into the act. NCFS's first action at Sunset Acres was to organize a "community speakout": a meeting between Holly Springs' public officials and residents of Sunset Acres. The goal was to start a dialogue between residents and city officials. Residents described the problem, and it was agreed that polluted wells were indeed a critical issue. When Gerald Holleman (mayor of Holly Springs) closed the meeting, he volunteered the local fire station as a temporary source of uncontaminated water. "I believe that everyone has a right to clean and safe drinking water," he said.

At the time Holly Springs was in the process of installing water and sewage lines to Middle Creek, another subdivision. If only Sunset Acres could be annexed by the city it would also receive these services. The community discussed this idea through forums, and the community was surveyed for their opinions. Many residents feared that the city would impose taxes and fees for utilities if annexation were approved. So NCFS organized workshops to teach residents the benefits and costs of annexation.

"A lot of people had misconceptions about what annexation meant , and you can't blame them because they've been ripped off so many times," said Williams. And from the city's point of view, the $3.2 million projected cost of the project would require the funding of state and federal grants. An intensive lobbying effort was required, and NCFS set about contacting elected officials, and organizing legislative visits by the residents of Sunset Acres.

Yet not everyone was in favor of the project. To some this seemed like government intrusion in the matters of private citizens. After all, the residents of Sunset Acres chose to live in rural areas, didn't they? Shouldn't they be required to take the good with the bad? People thinking in this manner saw the problem as one of inadequate maintenance of private wells. The casings of the wells—some up to 30 years old—can become porous, allowing the contamination of well water. Surely government had no obligation to come to the aid of private citizens unwilling (or unable) to maintain their own water and sewage.

Or did it? Many residents pointed at a nearby, 20 year old, toxic landfill as the most likely source of the pollution of their wells (as well as the possible cause of the high rates of cancer in the community). The pollution was widespread and generalized, which seemed to indicate a potent, non-localized source. Artris Woodard, a Sunset Acres resident, learned this when she called the Wake County Health Department to find out how to go about getting a new well. It turned out that there was no location on her property from which a well could reach uncontaminated water. "I was willing to pay for a new well if I could get it," she said.

Despite the contrarians, the city of Holly Springs assembled the materials and wrote the letters needed to apply for the grants. And with the concerted lobbying of the Sunset Acre residents, $2,300,000 was finally made available for the project by state and federal agencies. Although this was still $850,000 short of the needed amount, the city of Holly Springs, in December 1996, agreed to annex Sunset Acres. Everything seemed on track.

But the additional money still had not been found by that summer. And when the state legislature met and refused to grant the money, it seemed that the entire project might be derailed: The legislators were soon to go into their summer recess. However the Sunset Acres organization, unified and still focused upon their goal, gathered at the legislative building and set out a symbolic "stop" sign in front of the door: "Stop, we'd like to have clean water before you go."

Sometimes it's hard to know what motivates a legislator. A huge campaign donation? A junket to Tahiti? Or an understated sign held by a small but determined group of concerned citizens? In this case it must have been the latter, for by December 1997 the entire 3.2 million was finally scraped together, and work could begin. At this time engineers are surveying so that groundwork may begin in spring.

"A tremendous success" says Lynice Williams. She has every reason to be satisfied: A small group of low-income, rural residents, who were at one time powerless to affect the system and improve their living condition, had, through organizing, become sufficiently potent to win a $3.2 million utility project for their community. "Now we have a body of people who are prepared to take on other projects and who know how to access what they need and what they should have in their community," said Williams. It is the success of a focused effort, of organization; and the credit for organizing goes to NCFS.

Although pure water will soon be flowing through the pipes of Sunset Acres, NCFS still intends to remain involved in the community. Through community oversight committees, the residents want to be sure that the money stays in the community and is actually spent where it is most needed. They are also involved in the bidding process to ensure that (to the degree it is possible) the work is assigned to local Holly Springs contractors who have the skills to carry it out. Also there is still the ground water pollution and the problem of cancer in the area; the old toxic landfill is still an issue. And there are plans for another landfill to be built near by. With this impetus, NCFS has enlisted UNC's Public Health school to help trace the source of the pollution and to determine if there is a link to the widespread cancer in the area. The new landfill is supposed to have "containers" that will remain intact for only 20 years.

"Nobody's addressing this issue of 20 year containers," protests Williams. She points out that Sunset Acres, which already has a higher than normal incidence of cancer, does not need another toxic landfill; and that an expected 20 year container life is a poor guarantee for a community which, already 100 years old, hopes to be around for another century. Happily the landfill issue has the attention of all the subdivisions in Holly Springs, not just Sunset Acres. Williams pointed out that Bob Kapel, a resident of one of the new subdivisions and a recently elected member of the town board, is working closely with NCFS on this.

The exigency and subsequent organizing of Sunset Acres has helped to alert the entire city of Holly Springs to the danger of environmental pollution. And likewise all North Carolinians will someday realize that environmental pollution can no longer be ignored, just because it is currently located in economically depressed, rural areas.

Pollution can't be isolated to a specific area: it continues to pile up, or the containers that hold it break down. It must eventually spread, and all of us will be affected to some degree. For this reason we must see vulnerable rural communities as mine-shaft canaries. For when they start to choke, we know there is gas in the mine—and that we are all breathing it.

  Samuel Cole recently moved to Carrboro and works at Weaver Street Market.  

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