Years of illegal dumping near Falls Lake finally prompted Durham County officials to strengthen rules on what constitutes “beneficial fill” — used to improve farmland — and what is merely trash disguised as dirt.
Durham County Commissioners last week approved changes to the Unified Development Ordinance that require more accountability from landowners who want to use beneficial fill.
The commission passed the amendment by a 3-1 vote. James Hill voted no; Brenda Howerton was absent from the meeting.
Durham City Council had already approved the changes earlier in November.
Landowners who want to use beneficial fill now have to apply to the county, said Ryan Eaves, Durham County’s Stormwater Control and Erosion manager. They must detail their proposed activity, including the source of the fill material, and how long the disposal will occur.
“Sedimentation sounds benign,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. But when dirt accumulates in waterways it leads to more flooding. Contaminants can also hitchhike on the sediment particles, further polluting the waterways.
“iI’s an environmental issue and a safety issue,” Reckhow said.
However, several people who live near the lake and the illegal dump sites objected to the amendments, saying they are still insufficient to protect the water supply for a half million people downstream and those on neighboring private drinking water wells.
“The proposed changes aren’t going to stop the environmental abuse,” Ruth McDaniel, a farmer and soil scientist who lives on Benny Ross Road, adjacent to a former illegal dump site, told the commission. “It’s are not the best that our community can produce, and I ask that changes not be enacted until there is more stakeholder input.”
State law defines beneficial fill as dirt, asphalt and concrete, whose purpose is “to improve land use potential or other approved beneficial reuses.”
But at least one illegal dumper has outmaneuvered county officials for three years. Policy Watch previously reported on three parcels — 550 Benny Ross Road, 101 Southview Road and 201 Southview Road — where hundreds tons of dirt infiltrated with trash and other unknown substances had been dumped under the guise of beneficial fill.
All of the sites lie within a half-mile of Falls Lake; the acreage is also veined with streams that flow into the drinking water reservoir.
Russell Stoutt owns the eight-acre Benny Ross Road property. The county and the NC Department of Environmental Quality together fined him nearly $100,000 for erosion and water quality violations. However, Stoutt has yet to pay the penalty, and the case is in litigation.
McDaniel told the commission that the county has not enforced existing regulations regarding illegal dumping. For example, after county officials ordered Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he continued for another four months, McDaniel said.
“We were calling for inspections because it hadn’t stopped,” she said. “Russell knows we’re watching him. It just starts somewhere else.”
After the county forced Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he began hauling dirt and trash to the Southview Road parcels, which are owned by Jim Puryear of Wendell. Stoutt filled in parts of wetlands and streams that contribute to the environmental health of the Falls Lake watershed.
Because property owners are responsible for activity on their land, Puryear was fined $22,000 by DEQ for the Southview Road violations. For nearly a year state officials have ordered Puryear to plant grass or other vegetation to keep the erosion in check. As of Dec. 1, there was none — just packed mud after a recent rain.
New language also limits the height of dirt stockpiles. At Benny Ross Road, Stoutt had piled dirt 40 feet high, with steep slopes that threatened to collapse. Read more