Residents feel betrayed after report from Duke shows lead contamination in Durham parks

Sean Coffey Image
Monday, June 12, 2023
Duke study shows lead contamination in Durham parks; residents stunned
In all three parks, Duke's researchers found lead levels in the soil to be three or four times higher than EPA-accepted safety levels for recreational areas.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A study published by Duke University researchers in December of 2022 -- but just coming to light -- shows lead contamination in the soil of three Durham city parks.

The parks identified in the study are Walltown Park, East End Park, and East Durham Park. All three parks formerly served as the location for city waste incinerators. Now, locals are saying they were never told of any possible dangers from the city or the university -- and they're frustrated.

"I can't even be angry anymore," said Joseph Blue, who lives next to Walltown Park. "You know, that's a waste. That's a wasted feeling. Now it's about you know, feeling disrespected then they're going to do about the situation and how fast are they going to address everything that needs to be done."

Blue has lived in the Walltown section of Durham for nearly 60 years and said he grew up playing on the contaminated fields and in the nearby stream. He said his children and grandchildren frequent the park, too, and he's concerned for everyone's health.

"The park was our sanctuary," he said. "I mean, we all came here and we played here every day. Every day. And like I said, who knows what the levels were then?"

In all three parks, Duke's researchers found lead levels in the soil to be three or four times higher than EPA-accepted safety levels for recreational areas. In Walltown Park, for example, they found lead in the soil to be as high as 1,338 parts per million. The EPA threshold is 400 parts per million.

ABC11 ran into a father at Walltown Park who hadn't heard of the report and said he won't be back until there was more clarity.

"Until the city can, you know, straighten the situation out, the problem. Do some more testing," said Antonio Snell, a lifelong Durham resident.

Snell said he's already concerned about other parents, and what they can do to learn more.

"If they come here every day or came here every day, I think they should get the child tested, if not themselves," he said.

Melissa Rooney has lived in the area for more than 20 years and has been active in spreading the report's findings since they recently came to light. She said it underscores a troubling historical pattern in the community.

"The neighborhoods that are being affected are not the affluent Duke-associated White neighborhoods. They are historically lower socioeconomic, if not African-American, you know, Black neighborhoods that have been underserved for years," Rooney said.

The City of Durham told ABC11 that it is in communication with concerned residents of the areas identified in the report. The City said it is conducting an "environmental assessment" and will release more information when the findings are complete.

Durham City Manager issued a statement in response to the report:

"On June 1, a report composed by a student at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment was sent to the City of Durham regarding the mineral soil concentrations of lead in some areas of Walltown, East End, and East Durham Parks.

As is our protocol when concerns are expressed about any City-owned property, I immediately instructed our Finance Department's Risk Management Division to review this report and provide a course of action for how the City should proceed.

The safety of our properties is something we take very seriously, and based on Risk Management's recommendation, we will now contract with a North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality-certified consultant to conduct an environmental assessment of the three parks included in the student report as well as Lyon Park, which was not included in the report, but was recommended that it be assessed.

While the City's environmental assessment is underway, City staff are planning to host information sessions with the communities surrounding these parks to help keep them informed on the progress of the assessment.

We are also engaging the Durham County Department of Public Health to assist with public education to the communities surrounding these parks to help ensure our residents have accurate information to better understand and address any lead exposure concerns in their homes.

Once the City's environmental assessment is completed, I will publicly share our planned next steps of how we will address any findings."