I-Team: Durham residents cry foul over neighborhood smell

Monday, March 12, 2018
Durham neighborhood stinks, residents say
Residents of a Durham neighborhood complain of a foul odor from the nearby water plant.

DURHAM, NC (WTVD) -- Something stinks about Durham's water utility.

Stay on top of breaking news stories with the ABC11 News App

Several residents and business owners are complaining about what they describe as a rancid smell they claim emanates from the nearby South Durham Water Reclamation Facility (SDWRF) on Farrington Road.

The City of Durham, they also charge, has not taken their complaints seriously and they are crying foul about the city's efforts to bring them some fresh air.

"It's very intrusive on our daily lives," resident Tara Piccirili said of the stench, which she likens to "a rotten egg or a toilet that has not been flushed in weeks."

Piccirili moved to Durham's Falconbridge neighborhood about six months ago, and she admittedly never smelled anything when her family first toured their new home. In the past few months, however, she's teamed up with her neighbors to create a "Smell & Tell" network, logging dozens of near-daily complaints about the odor.

Residents of a Durham neighborhood complain of a foul odor from the nearby water plant.

According to its website, the City of Durham owns and manages two water reclamation facilities (WRFs) - North Durham WRF along East Club Boulevard, and South Durham WRF along Farrington Road.

Like other water reclamation facilities in the area, the SDWRF is the plant where wastewater from sewers can be filtered and processed into water that can be reused for other purposes, such as sprinklers or flushing toilets. Unlike other nearby plants in such places as Cary or Chapel Hill, SDWRF is a fully open-air facility, which residents emphatically point to as the source of the bad smell.

Michael Navascuez, who along with his wife have lived in Falconbridge for 15 years, agrees there's something much different now than before.

"I think back then we felt kind of helpless and nobody seemed interested in doing anything," Navascuez recalled. "Now we have this great communication as a neighborhood and we're hoping for action."

Water Management officials in Durham declined to speak on camera with the ABC11 I-Team, but said in a statement: "The City of Durham and the Department of Water Management take customer concerns very seriously. We have been in frequent contact with residents and business owners in the vicinity of SDWRF since these concerns were first shared with us last fall. Since that time, we have met with customers, provided updates to City Council, responded to media inquiries, and performed a variety of tests and inspections at SDWRF, the nearby Falconbridge neighborhood, and other points of interest in the general area."

To the city's credit, residents confirm crews came through and flushed out the underground sewers and sealed or replaced all manholes - but the smell, they say, has not gone away.

Additionally, while the statement alludes to concerns "first shared with us last fall," the city posted this report on "Odor Control Rehabilitation" published in October 2015.

The study, conducted by an outside engineering firm, reported extreme odor concentration levels from the main basins, and even suggested a full insulated fix known as "cap and scrub," which the residents want.

Additionally, the water managers confirmed to the I-Team they knew about odors affecting nearby neighborhoods since construction in 1984, but they insist "These odors are not present every day."

Sean McFarland, Durham's Assistant Water Utilities Director, told the I-Team in an email: " Since the facility was constructed in 1984, complaints about odors have surfaced periodically (generally when prevailing winds have shifted), but until last fall, Durham One Call records show only four service requests about "bad odors" near SDWRF in the last 10+ years. Water Management staff has always responded to customer concerns of all types, and we continue to encourage customers who live and work in the vicinity of SDWRF to contact us when they notice odors they believe are coming from the facility."

McFarland points to the utility's $95 million Master Plan and capital improvements project underway at both water reclamation facilities. Phase 2 of the project, scheduled to break ground in 2020, will cost an estimated $30 million to complete; $4.4 million is dedicated to odor control.

"Odor control has always been and will continue to be one of the primary objectives of the wastewater treatment process," McFarland asserted. "The department is committed to continuously monitoring and improving these processes as Durham continues to grow, and new residential and commercial developments are constructed around the City's two water reclamation facilities."

As for the years until ground breaks - and the potential for the smells to continue - McFarland told ABC11 that there is a more immediate solution being pursued in a partnership with Evoqua Water Solutions, which plans to administer a new chemical solution that McFarland says immediately reacts with and eliminates odor-causing sulfides and organics present.

The city will be meeting with Evoqua on Friday to discuss setting up the implementation process, which is expected to cost between $125,000 and $167,000 during the first year of odor-control treatment.