Just two miles down the road from a community center that gladly serves as the stomping grounds for minority children of all ages lies the dying remains of an 80-acre landfill that came at a price for the Rogers Road community.
Some of these children are part of the newest generation of families that Minister Robert Campbell calls the “groundbreakers” — those who have been around since the start of the effects caused by the landfill and pushed for change. Campbell, the current president of the Rogers Road Neighborhood Association — RENA — started getting involved in community politics when the now-closed landfill started to cause tangible issues.
“The water began to smell bad, and it would get into your clothes,” Campbell said. “So we had to start going into town and washing our clothes at the laundromat.”
The Rogers Road community, located in the middle of Chapel Hill and Carrboro town lines, housed the Orange County landfill for over 40 years before its closure in 2013. However, Campbell said no protections were put in place for the drinking water, as the community was not connected to the municipal water system and used wells.
According to the Rogers Road community website, Howard Lee, the mayor of Chapel Hill at the time, promised paved roads, a recreation center, public transit and access to public water on Rogers Road after the temporary landfill filled up. David Caldwell, project director for RENA and a vital force in the neighborhood, said he still remembers Mayor Lee making these vows directly to his father. But Campbell said these proved to be empty promises that weren’t in the mayor’s hands, and the community continued to suffer.
“In the past month alone, we’ve had five of our residents to pass away. Out of those five, four of them had cancer,” Campbell said. “We don’t know whether it was their lifestyle, the air they were breathing or the water they were drinking.”
He’s not alone in believing that the contamination in the water may have caused deaths in the neighborhood. He said some residents have seen everything from coal ash to biological waste thrown into the landfill, contaminating the air and water in surrounding areas.
According to the Daily Tar Heel, the UNC Gillings School of Public Health conducted a study in 2009 that revealed E.Coli bacteria and fecal contamination in the drinking water. The Orange County Health Department followed up in 2011 with tests that proved only two of the 11 wells in the neighborhood contained water that met the Environmental Protection Agency standards.
But government officials in Chapel Hill still could not find another place for the landfill, and tried to give seven of the “groundbreaker” residents access to public water and sewer lines as a temporary fix to the situation. Even as the town tried to rectify the situation, some residents didn’t think forgiveness was in order.
“It’s taking advantage of those who don’t have as much,” said gardener and long-time community member Marian Peppers. “Do wrong; be afraid. That’s the Bible.”
A complex history exists behind the treatment of people of color in regards to hazardous waste facilities. According to a 2007 Toxic Wastes report, people of color make up over 56 percent of the residents living within two miles of these areas.
“It goes back to their plan — it’s a steady course,” Peppers said. “We knew about it before the battle started.”
The Rogers Road Neighborhood Task Force was created in 2012 in order to make recommendations to the Chapel Hill Town Council for improvements around the neighborhood. According to its website, members pushed for a sewer service and a safer community center.
That same year, the existing community center was shut down by the Town of Chapel Hill because of the center’s failure to comply with fire and safety codes, and its lack of a permit to use a house as a community center.
In the meantime, community members cited that the Rogers Road area was still suffering from the effects of the landfill, including the use of illegal dumpsites and contaminated backyard wells.
In 2012, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted to close the landfill. It was officially shut down in June of 2013. The 15,000 tons of waste generated by the county is now directed to the Waste Disposal and Recycling Center in Durham, which costs about $3.5 million more annually, the Daily Tar Heel reported.
While the landfill is still a sore spot for many residents, Campbell believes that educating people about it will help heal the community.
“We like to talk about the history of the Rogers Road, from slavery to nowadays, and the transition,” he said. “It’s how you get over those barriers — those ‘isms from yesterday.”
After the landfill was shut down, RENA was awarded $650,000 for the construction of a new community center. It opened November of 2014 on the 100 block of Edgar St, and many community leaders saw it as a fresh start in the Rogers Road neighborhood.
“It’s ours,” Peppers said. “It’s a place where we can hang out and connect with each other.”
Campbell, Caldwell and others now use the community center as a place to implement programs to help the homeless or hungry, to clean up the neighborhood and to care for children in the area.
Campbell said they have since implemented summer enrichment camps, toy drives, cooking classes, movie nights, a food bank that serves up to 65 families each week and more. There’s also a community garden run by Peppers that provides opportunities for field trips for children and brings plants and crops to the area.
“Our goal is to unify our society, and through social engagement, we have been able to do that,” Campbell said. “We provide those services, but we also provide spaces for people to have community meetings and it’s always a safe haven for the kids to hang out.”
Almost all of the people involved with the center are volunteers, which allows RENA leaders to offer services at a low price — only $25 each month for children to have in-depth tutoring after school every day. The center also often provides free breakfast for children on their way to school or before the summer camp starts.
“It’s hard to teach a child something if they’re struggling with hunger,” Campbell said. “If a culture is good health-wise, they’re gonna be good mentally, and they’re gonna be strong.”
In late 2016, the Orange County government authorized funding for municipal sewer line construction to reach the Rogers Road community. The construction of almost four miles of sewer lines is anticipated to begin this summer, the Town of Chapel Hill website reports.
Judy Johnson, the principal planner in the Planning and Sustainability Department within the Town of Chapel Hill, said bids have been received by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, and a tentative groundbreaking ceremony is set for June 20. She said the town worked with both RENA and the Jackson Center, an organization made to preserve the historically black communities in the area, to come up with a plan for the sewage system.
“They both held instrumental roles in assisting the three jurisdictions in acquiring the necessary sewer easements,” Johnson said.
Rogers Road residents are excited about the new development, hoping it will help with affordable housing in the area.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Peppers said. “It should’ve been their first priority.”
Johnson said the Town of Carrboro plans to construct sidewalks in the neighborhood sometime in the coming year.
While the Rogers Road community has struggled with the burden of the closed landfill, RENA still prioritizes unity and social justice for all.
RENA leaders plan to be involved in community development changes in the years to come and residents like Campbell, Caldwell and Peppers refuse to be left in the dark again.
“It takes collaboration and participation for change to occur,” Campbell said.
“We’re not saying we don’t want development to come, but we want to control what the development will look like.”