Durham officials tighten loopholes on illegal dumping near Falls Lake, but enforcement remains lax

For a year, state officials have ordered Jim Puryear, the owner of 101 Southview Road in Durham, to plant vegetation on his land to curb erosion after an illegal dumping operation polluted a stream and wetlands near Falls Lake. This photo, taken Dec. 1, 2019, shows nothing has been planted. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

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. 

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs: “This is very serious.” (Photo: Durham County)

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.” 

Dumping has occurred at these five addresses near Falls Lake. With the exception of 2817 Baptist Road, the other locations have been shut down by either county or state officials — or both. Russell Stoutt is responsible for the illegal dumping at Kingsmill Farm, Benny Ross Road and Southview Road, according to state and county documents.

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. 

A new section in the county ordinance limits dirt piles to 30 feet or half the height of the surrounding mature trees. Previously, there was no limit.

McDaniel told the commission that 30 feet “is far too large. Stockpiles of this size will contain a huge amount of material vulnerable to erosion as well as invite clandestine for-profit dumping.”

She also noted that by using the height of adjacent trees “sets up a situation for abuse of the statute. A person could simply cut down trees if that would make them subject to larger stockpiles.”

“This is a very serious issue,” said Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, calling the changes “an interim step.”

“We need a comprehensive strategy for this area,” Jacobs said, addressing County Manger Wendell Davis. “It’s not just soil but also water issues.”

Tammie Sawaya has lived for 15 years on Baptist Road, which is also near the dump sites. Now that the state has put the kibosh on Southview Road, neighbors are vigilant about the next dump site. “I’m really concerned that there will be another Benny Ross Road on Baptist Road,” Sawaya said.

“A bigger problem is how we ensure regulations are being enforced,” said Commissioner Heidi Carter. “Do we need more resources for monitoring and enforcement?”

Eaves said the county has the equivalent of just 3.5 full-time employees to inspect 180 sites that have land disturbance permits, making it difficult to visit them monthly, as planned.

Even though there are stricter requirements for building a home near Falls Lake — soil surveys and special septic systems can cost upward of $20,000 — northeastern Durham County is nonetheless growing. Under review is Falls Village North, near Baptist Road, which if fully built, would have 354 single-family lots and could be annexed into the city limits, according to Durham’s Development Tracker map.

“There’s a lot of development occurring,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. “And developers need places to get rid of their dirt.”

By law, the county must first present its proposed changes to the state Sedimentation Commission, which meets only quarterly. Once the county receives state approval, it can then proceed through local boards. The next state Sedimentation Commission meeting is in February.

But Eaves acknowledged no one from the county contacted soil experts at NC State University, nor the City-County Environmental Affairs Board, nor the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District for feedback about the ordinance changes, including the stockpile height.

The commissioners directed Eaves to solicit those boards’ input, and that of the neighbors, for a subsequent round of changes next year. 

“I am concerned,” Reckhow said. “It seems things are out of control.”

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