Durham County

Something stinks in South Durham

Something smells in South Durham

South Durham residents residents want the city to control the sewage smell they say has gotten worse with development.
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South Durham residents residents want the city to control the sewage smell they say has gotten worse with development.

A bad smell is in the air in South Durham.

While the exact source on a given day is debated, it’s related to the South Durham Water Reclamation Facility off Farrington Road. It doesn’t smell every day, but when it does, you know it, say residents who are occasionally in the direction the wind blows the smell of sewage by their homes.

On a crisp November morning at peak plumbing use time when commuters are getting ready to leave for work, the smell in nearby Falconbridge neighborhood was – well, it smelled like a nice fall morning. But that’s not the case every day, according to those who live there.

And the city agrees.

What’s that smell?

Tara Piccirilli and her wife Tisha Broyles bought their house on Falconbridge Drive in August. They didn’t know a water plant was nearby, and the neighborhood smelled just fine when they checked out the house and visited other times.

“We didn’t think to check for things like that,” Piccirilli said, and their realtor didn’t mention it.

But a few weeks after moving in, they smelled it. They dismissed it at first, then it happened again. And again. Their 5-year-old daughter said it smelled like “poop” and didn’t want to play outside. They started talking to their neighbors.

Now a group of Falconbridge neighbors, led by resident John Noble, are asking the city to do something about it.

Noble said the smell extends beyond just his neighborhood, which is about a mile from the N.C. 54 intersection, a busy one for those heading toward nearby Chapel Hill. Falconbridge residents have Chapel Hill addresses, though they live geographically in Durham. It’s about halfway between downtown Chapel Hill and the Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham. A new neighborhood with house lots for sale up Farrington Road is called Southpoint Manor.

New houses add new toilets, too.

“When [the smell] is noticeable, it’s very noticeable,” Piccirilli said on Wednesday morning at her Falconbridge home, which was built in 1985. The South Durham Water Reclamation Facility was built in 1984 and expanded in 1995.

“It’s overpowering, too,” Broyles said. “When it’s out there, it’s out there.”

Bob Johnson moved into his Falconbridge home in June and had not noticed the facility or the smell before buying the house. Helen and Michael Navascuez have lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and said the smell has gotten worse with development.

“It’s very sporadic,” Michael Navascuez said. “[The smell] can be very powerful.”

“With all this building around here, it’s getting worse and worse,” Helen Navascuez said.

What the residents have done

Noble told the Durham City Council about the problem during the council’s work session on Nov. 9. He’s not unhappy with the city’s response thus far, he just wants to make sure they’re actually going to fix the problem. He credits them for working toward a solution, but wants an outside firm to come up with a fix sooner.

The city’s water management department head, Don Greeley, responded to Noble’s complaints at the meeting and told the council what his department is planning to do about it.

“We’ve known for a long time it has odor issues around I-40, which is where main flow comes in,” Greeley said. “Predominantly the winds go from west to east 60 to 70 percent of the time,” he said, but other times the wind blows odor another way. Some residents came and toured the facility earlier this year, he said.

“There are days we realize the plant smells,” Greeley said. He explained how the flow of the system worked, and how in the middle of the night, there’s not much happening. But when people get up and start getting ready for work, or come home in the evening, the flow peaks.

“During the night when flows are low, the sewers are not moving as much and gases collect in the system ... Morning pushes it out,” Greeley said, hence the smell. He also said that air release valves adjacent to the sidewalk and road near the plant pushes gas out, so they use an air scrubber at the vent. Wastewater coming through that air release valve is collected from the Southpoint area as well as the Woodcroft neighborhood, he said, and that the perception of those walking by is that it’s from the plant.

“Frankly, Durham your toilet stinks and you need to fix it,” Noble told the city council.

“It’s our toilet,” Mayor Bill Bell said.

What’s coming down the pipe

Kirk Butts, a water department spokesperson, said that after the work session, water management took another trip to Falconbridge based on Noble’s complaints about the odors.

“In his next door neighbor’s front yard, we found a blocked sewer cleanout,” Butts said. A photo shows rag blockage and subsequent spilled sewage, he said. It’s a “good, but rather funky, reminder for all homeowners to keep their cleanouts properly maintained, and to only flush #1s, #2s, and TP [toilet paper] down the toilet. These non-wovens cause major problems for private and municipal sewer systems.”

Blocked Cleanout (1)
A blocked sewer cleanout in the Falconbridge neighborhood. City of Durham

As far as the South Durham Water Reclamation Facility, a master plan, with odor control improvements, was completed in 2012. In 2015, they had a technical report on odor control with recommended improvements. The next phase of construction included $4.4 million out of a $30 million project going toward odor control improvements like partially ecapsulating it. That phase is scheduled to begin in 2020 to 2021.

“I hope folks that live there get some relief soon and if not, we’ll know about it,” Durham City Council member Charlie Reece said.

Noble and the other residents said they’ll be back to talk to the council again if needed, and have talked to other residents in the area, too.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

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