A Greensboro metropolis park tops a poisonous landfill

By Greg Barnes

The city of Greensboro still mows the grass, but it’s not much of a park anymore.

The cement on the basketball court buckles and crumbles. Graffiti mars the backboard at one end, the rim missing on the other. Weeds poke through a baseball diamond. A light pole leans precariously nearby, the victim of a sinking landscape.

At the southern border, a gaping hole in a wooden footbridge over a contaminated creek dares people to attempt crossing.

This is Bingham Park, the site of a former landfill and incinerator in the heart of a Greensboro community called Cottage Grove — home largely to low-income African Americans and others from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

This is also a story about racial inequity and environmental injustice. City, state and federal officials have known at least since 2012 that the landfill under Bingham Park is leaking a steady stew of toxins, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, iron, thallium and manganese, all of which are in the soil and groundwater exceeding levels considered to be safe. The landfill was closed around 1953.

“I think anytime someone puts something that is a contaminant into a community, like the landfill, it is environmental injustice,” said Josie Williams, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition. “It’s not rocket science. History speaks for itself.”

The state Department of Environmental Quality says it has plans to clean up the contamination and make the park safe and useful, beginning late next year if everything falls into place. It takes time, DEQ officials say, to lay the groundwork, to do the countless studies, obtain the permits, make the surveys and all of the other preparations before the actual remediation work can begin. Documents show dozens of studies and research work have already been done.

Besides, the DEQ officials say, the Bingham Park landfill is not the only one of its type — unpermitted and built before liners were required in landfills as of 1983. State regulators say 681 such landfills exist in North Carolina. The Bingham Park landfill was actually fairly low on the state’s priority list, but cooperation from the city of Greensboro, which plans to restore the park, and others saw it move up the ladder.

Regardless, Cottage Grove residents and the many activist organizations that are assisting them say the landfills built before 1983 are disproportionately in communities of color. They say Bingham Park should have been restored by now, and they worry about potential health problems caused by the contamination. Some of them used to play– even swim — in the unnamed creeks in their youth.

Toxins continue to leach into the creeks, which carry them downstream, past the low-income Spencer Street and Cottage Gardens apartment complexes and along the border of W.M. Hampton Elementary School. The school closed in 2018 when a tornado tried to tear it apart. The school’s playground sits near the creek, its brightly colored equipment once teeming with children playing during recess.

State documents show that some of the school’s property is contaminated with lead and other heavy metals, but not enough to exceed state or federal standards. It is a different story at the park itself, though. There, the documents reveal, levels of lead, asbestos and other toxins lie at or just under the surface. The documents show that the levels of contamination in the park are out of compliance with state law.

A contaminated creek winds past the Spencer Street Apartments and Bingham Park. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

As a young boy, Charles Pinnix and his grandmother used to scavenge the landfill for food and anything else that his family could use to survive.

One time, Pinnix recalled, he was standing at the bottom of the landfill when workers dumped so much garbage on him that he became covered up in it. The workers realized what had happened and rescued him, he said.

At the age of 8 or 9, Pinnix said, he and his cousins often swam in the creek knowing nothing about the contamination. The creek, which borders the park, is about 10 feet wide. Old items from the landfill continue finding their way into the creek today.

“That’s where I learned how to swim,” said Pinnix, who is 73. “We didn’t know anything about that stuff back then. We were out trying to have fun.”

A study dated August 2019 shows that sediment from the creek bottom contains excessive levels of antimony, arsenic, iron, manganese, thallium, benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(b)fluoranthene. Most of those contaminants have the potential to cause cancer. Some, including arsenic, iron and manganese, are naturally occurring and not necessarily products of the landfill.

The creek runs past the Spencer Street apartments, where the footbridge once invited people to cross it to get to the adjoining Bingham Park. Now that bridge has a 3-foot gap in it. The creek also flows behind the elementary school, where parents once followed its path while walking their children to school. A tributary flows through the former Avalon Trace apartments. Residents there used the creek to water their gardens.

A hole in a footbridge dares people to pass over a contaminated creek between the low-income Spencer Street Apartments and Bingham Park. Photo credit: Greg BarnesA hole in a footbridge dares people to pass over a contaminated creek between the low-income Spencer Street Apartments and Bingham Park. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

But it’s the landfill itself that holds the biggest hazards.

The 2019 study, by the S&ME engineering consultant firm in Raleigh, found excessive levels of lead in 1,211 of the 1,453 soil samples it took from the park. Some of the lead was found at the surface to 20 feet below ground. Excessive levels of asbestos, another carcinogen, were also found at the park, from the surface to at least 10 feet below.

Lead is a particularly problematic substance, especially for small children. Once, it was considered acceptable for children to carry some lead in their blood. But in recent decades, researchers have found that even at minute levels it can damage their nervous systems and cause learning disabilities, stunted growth, hearing loss, low IQ and impaired formation and function of blood cells. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says no levels of lead are safe for children.

Analee Thornburg, the DEQ’s Bingham Park project manager, says she isn’t overly concerned about the levels of contamination at the park.

“Not if people are using the park for its intended use, which is walking, exercise, things like that,” said Thornburg, who has been working on the park project for 11 years. “Nothing we did indicated an imminent threat. We don’t have any results that indicate that anybody that uses the site based on its intended use, which is a park, should be at risk.”

In contrast, Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, senior environmental health scientist at RTI International, sees reason for caution.

“The whole area has an array of concerns in terms of the amount of contaminants, the types, and the vertical and horizontal extent of them,” Hoponick Redmon said in an email after reviewing the study. “What is even more concerning than occasional use of the park is the contamination in the residential areas where children may permanently live and for example play in the creeks every day.”

A few neighboring homes sit atop the landfill site. No one has ever conducted an in-depth  study of the health of residents who live near the park. Hoponick Redmon, whose expertise includes lead contamination, thinks studies are needed.

“I would assume a larger risk assessment is (should be) done for the people living around the site, and based on that, additional remedial action in those locations, plus a change in zoning to this not being used for recreational use,” Hoponick Redmon said in her email.

This fall, researchers at UNC Greensboro and Cone Health received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to conduct that type of study.

Separate and unequal

Like most other cities across the country, Greensboro is segregated — north and west house more affluent whites and east and south are home to lower-income minorities.

That didn’t happen by accident, said Stephen Sills, a UNC Greensboro professor and director of the university’s Center for Housing and Community Studies. Racial covenants, deed restrictions “and other Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s really determined the racial bifurcation of the City of Greensboro that still exists today,” Sills said in an email.

The 1930s federal practice of redlining — or outlining Black communities on maps with red ink to warn off mortgage lenders — caused additional hardships because it led to Blacks being denied capital and devalued their properties, Sills said.

It was also no accident that a landfill and incinerator were located in Cottage Grove or that a freeway was built through the community, Sills said. The incinerator began operating around 1922; the freeway a few years after that.

Despite all of those obstacles, Cottage Grove began to thrive. By the 1930s and ‘40s, Sills said, single-family homes and Black-owned businesses and industries started to become entrenched in Cottage Grove. Many of its inhabitants worked in the large Cone Mills textile factory.

Sills and the Housing Coalition’s Williams said the area continued to do well into the 1960s and ‘70s.

“There were a lot of Black-owned businesses there. It was actually an affluent, middle-income-type neighborhood,” said Williams, who remembered seeking employment in the community and going to its drive-in theater as a young woman. “There was a lot of industrial manufacturing companies over there.”

Brightly colored playground equipment behind W.M. Hampton Elementary School, where contamination has been found. Photo credit: Greg BarnesBrightly colored playground equipment behind W.M. Hampton Elementary School, where contamination has been found. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

Then came low-income public housing. Crime in the community soared and investment dwindled. Industries and businesses fled. By 2009, a third of Cottage Grove residents were living below the federal poverty line. Today, the community’s median income is $12,000, far below the city median income of $48,964. More than 40 percent of residents lack health insurance, and more than 80 percent live in rental properties.

“Dense housing started going up, and when that started happening, the investment in the area started declining,” Williams said.

That dense housing included Morningside Homes, a 400-unit public housing complex. Built in 1951, Morningside was billed as Greensboro’s first housing specifically for low-income African Americans.

Twenty-eight years later, on Nov. 3, 1979, the complex became the site of a protest by communists loyal to the plight of black workers. The protest turned deadly when Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis showed up, killing five communists in what has become known as the Greensboro Massacre.

By the 1980s, Morningside became so ridden with crime and drugs that police established a substation there. The complex has since been demolished to make way for Hope VI mixed-income housing.

Not far from Morningside, a 176-unit, low-income apartment complex called Avalon Trace went up in 1959. Before long, Avalon Trace became rife with leaking roofs, mold and infestations of mice and cockroaches. It changed ownership in 2018.

“I remember being out here, there was a baby less than a year old that spent more time at the hospital due to respiratory conditions than he spent at home the first year of his life,” Brett Byerly, then the Housing Coalition’s director, told a local TV reporter in November 2018. “We lifted up the blankets in the crib, the crib could have crawled away, that was the level of cockroach infestation.”

Contaminated gathering place

The Bingham Street landfill closed around 1953, its toxic contents buried over with soil, nothing more, because that was how it was done back then.

About 20 years later, the nearly 13-acre landfill became a city park, complete with a baseball field, a basketball court and a picnic area. The park saw heavy use in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to a timeline provided by Sills.

Sills said his group has recorded oral histories from Cottage Grove residents, who described the park as a gathering place.

“It was a place where people would go roller-skating. They would have barbecues. They would enjoy the grassy knoll that’s in the middle, the basketball court and some playgrounds,” he said, adding that people would pick blackberries that grew along the creek. Some would wade in the creek on their way to or home from school, he said.

It is not clear why the park is unkept and rarely used today. Williams and others trying to rebuild Cottage Grove said they don’t know for certain. They believe it’s because of the contamination, but there are no signs to warn people.

What is clear is that the park has sat largely idle — it’s potentially deadly toxins lying directly under the surface — for at least 20 years before what was then known as the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources commissioned a study.

A rimless backboard stands over a buckled and crumbling basketball court at Bingham Park. Photo credit: Greg BarnesA rimless backboard stands over a buckled and crumbling basketball court at the contaminated Bingham Park, the site of a former landfill and incinerator. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

Completed in June 2010, the study confirmed that Bingham Park is indeed sitting on a landfill. But other than to document exposed glass, ash, molten metal and bricks at the park, the study did nothing to identify the toxins at the surface and below. That wouldn’t happen for another two years.

A study from 2012 appears to be the first to document widespread contamination at the site. Many more studies would follow, culminating in 2019 with what was titled a “remedial investigation summary” that provides an extensive look at the contaminants found in and near the park.

Successes come slowly

In 2007, North Carolina enacted a law that places a tax on waste going into landfills. The money generated is then used to assess and remediate unlined municipal landfills that were built before 1983, when landfill liners began to be required.

Ryan Channell, unit supervisor of the DEQ’s Pre-Regulatory Landfill Program, said the tax generated about $11.5 million for the program last year.

In the years since the law was approved, Channell said, the program has restored 23 of the 681 landfills that meet the qualifications, and eight more are almost finished. At Bingham Park and 87 other sites, a remedial investigation has been completed, he said.

Plans for restoring Bingham Park include stabilizing the creek banks, excavating some of the contamination, adding a protective liner and then covering the liner with fill dirt and soil. The park’s amenities — including the basketball court, baseball field and walking paths — will be replaced after the remediation work is completed, said Thornburg, the project’s manager.

The Pre-Regulatory Landfill Program has had its share of success stories, perhaps most notably at Flemington Park in Wilmington. There, the program helped turn a large pre-1983 landfill into what is now the Cape Fear Regional Soccer Complex. The park has seven full-size soccer fields, and seven more are planned.

Activists for the Cottage Grove community are grateful that Bingham Park may be next in line for remediation, but they remain distrustful of government. They want the contamination removed and the park to be made safe.

“Not just putting a Band-Aid on it. Doing something substantial that would make the park a safe place for families to be,” said Patricia Macfoy, executive director for New Hope Community Development Group. Macfoy’s thoughts were echoed by Williams and Sel Mpang, who works for the Greensboro Housing Coalition. Mpang is a refugee from Vietnam whose family settled in Cottage Grove when she was about 5 years old. She gained American citizenship last year.

W.M. Hampton Elementary School remains boarded up following a tornado in 2018. Property behind the school has contamination below state standards.W.M. Hampton Elementary School has been closed since a tornado hit it in 2018. Property behind the school has contamination below state standards. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

Community engagement lagging

The Greensboro activists say they have reason to be skeptical over the latest plans for Bingham Park. They have been down this road before and repeatedly asked whether a landfill would have ever been put in an affluent area of west Greensboro. It is, they say, just one more example of environmental injustice.

Their skepticism shows up even now, after Cone Health and UNC Greensboro secured a major federal grant this fall to look at the potential health impacts of living next to a toxic landfill. The grant is one in a series over the years that have been used to help the Cottage Grove community.

The latest grant is great, Williams and the others say, but the community should have been involved in the application process.

“We didn’t know (about the grant) until it hit the newspapers,” Williams said. “I mean, you don’t even live over there. You can say you’re invested, but you don’t have the investment or the relatability like these residents do “

Williams said the grant award ruffled feathers, almost to the point where residents became unwilling to cooperate. Feelings have since been smoothed, and all of the parties involved now meet every Friday to get updates on the progress.

The grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a big deal. In a news release announcing the three-year grant, Kathy Colville, the healthy communities director for Cone Health, described it as “like the Oscars of our work.”

“As much as we are honored by receiving this fellowship, we are more excited about what it means for the people in the Bingham Park area,” Colville said. “This fellowship will help us better understand the impact on residents’ health today and, hopefully, inspire actions for a healthier tomorrow.”

Sills, a leading investigator in the grant research, said the funding will build on previous work in Cottage Grove by Cone Health, UNC Greensboro, the city of Greensboro and Collaborative Cottage Grove, a partnership that includes the Greensboro Housing Coalition, the New Hope Community Development Group, Mustard Seed Community Health, the Cottage Grove Neighborhood Association and the Cottage Grove Initiative. Among the group’s major achievements was to establish a health clinic in the community.

The group’s work has also included studies of high pediatric asthma rates, respiratory illnesses, diabetes and other diseases in Cottage Grove.

“But are any of them attributable to issues in the environment beyond housing, food insecurity, poverty, etc.?,” Sills said. “These are some of the questions that we’re investigating in this study. Is there a geographic link to any diseases, cancers, etc.?”

He said the study will also look at environmental justice issues in the community, social interventions and teaching citizen science by having residents help with sampling and stream cleanup.

For Williams, Mpang, Macfoy and those who call Cottage Grove home, there is no doubt that environmental injustice is at the root of the community’s problems.

“People just don’t want to acknowledge the very thing that is absolutely staring you in the face, because that means you have to be held accountable. So I don’t know what else to call it but environmental injustice,” Williams said.

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