Historically Black Community In Orange County Waits More Than 40 Years For Promise Of Water, Sewer

Jun 24, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 9:47 am

A 40-year old environmental justice situation that involved racial discrimination, broken promises and mistrust has finally been put to rest now that last sewer lines have been laid for the historically black Rogers Road neighborhood.

The Rev. Robert Campbell lives across the street from the Rogers Road Neighborhood Center. Kids are always there, playing inside and outside. The center has been there for only a few years, but Campbell has lived in the neighborhood since getting out of the military, after serving in the Vietnam War.

"I came out here, bought me a piece of property and we're here, and been here ever since 1973," said Campbell, wearing his Vietnam Veterans cap. "But grew up knowing Rogers Road, and a lot of my classmates and friends lived out here."

This land has a history going back to the 1700s. Black farmers worked the land for generations. Campbell, who is 70 years old, has fond memories of the neighborhood – Christmas pageants at a nearby church, Easter egg hunts and summer picnics.

"I grew up coming out here, and fell in love with the place," says Campbell.

But it has not always been easy living out here, on the outskirts of town. It doesn't take long to smell where you are.

"You're smelling a mixture of two different things," says Campbell. "Number one, you are smelling the results of failed septic tank systems. You are also smelling the results of methane gas that is still coming out of the landfill."

But Campbell, who heads the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA), says it smells 70 percent better than it used to on hot summer days.

Earlier this month, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority or OWASA, announced the completion of 3.5 miles of sewer service to the historic, predominately black neighborhood. Many residents and elected officials say it's finally time to celebrate. Campbell agrees. But it is hard to forget the promises the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and Orange County made to residents.

"There was a promise made in 1972. If you take the landfill, we're gonna give you all the basic amenities, we're going to bring paved roads out here, we're going to bring lights, we're going to bring sidewalks, we're going to bring municipal water and municipal sewage. We're going to bring all those things," said Campbell. "That didn't happen. It didn't happen."

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger says the Rogers Road community was almost purposefully caught in the cross hairs of three governmental jurisdictions. And every couple of years, a new group of politicians had to be brought up to speed on what to do.

"I came in and I was on one of the task forces, a school board member, had no clue this was on the opposite side of town from me," said Hemminger. "I didn't know the story and the history. I got educated. That task force made some recommendations and then was put on a shelf."

Years later, a series of events would finally happen. The landfill was shut down in 2013. And then a year later, the new community center opened, a much easier and cheaper task than constructing water and sewer lines.

Rogers Road area residents would form coalitions with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and stakeholders who lived outside of their community, which included lawyers and university professors. Their concerns of water, air and noise pollution would finally be heard.

Penny Rich chairs the Orange County Commission, but was on the OWASA Board almost 20 years ago when she became aware of the water and sewer problems at Rogers Road. Rich says there came a time when the community just didn't trust them anymore.

"Rightfully so. We kept on telling them that we were going to do things and it just did not happen. Yeah, yeah, a combination, money and the will to actually get it done," said Rich.

It cost more than $5 million to put in the sewer lines. Each town and the county are responsible for their share. Each of the 86 landowners will also have to pay thousands of dollars to be connected.

David Caldwell is connected. The 67-year-old says he is glad there are payment programs to help him and his neighbors. Caldwell is the former Project Director for RENA and has lived in the Rogers Road community since he was in elementary school.

"Been all over the world and came back. I'm not planning on leaving, but it's hard to stay. It's very hard to stay in Orange County," said Caldwell. "It's no secret about the cost, the rules, the regulations."

And with new water and sewer lines and new zoning comes another issue. The residents who live in the Rogers Road neighborhood might now have to worry about gentrification.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said an unlined landfill closed in 2013, but there were actually two landfills. The one that closed in 2013 was lined. An older one was unlined.

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