Finally, it’s here. The story you’ve all been waiting for.
In March, we asked you all to vote for the question you wanted us to answer the most. It was a tight race, but one question asked by Mary Ann Woehrel came out on top with 37 votes out of 117 total: “What is the county doing to stop the silt pollution coming from the construction on 15-501 next to Fearrington Village?”
You know how it goes. You asked, you voted, and now, we answer.
In a previous article published back in November, Our Chatham spoke with Chatham resident Dianne Birch about her concerns with water quality near her home in Fearrington Village. She showed a reporter how erosion had deteriorated the quality of the water in nearby Creekwood creek and Beechmast pond.
Almost six months later, Birch still grieves the state of her neighborhood’s stream and pond. Increased turbidity issues in Creekwood Creek poses no health risk to people, but it could negatively affect organisms within the stream.
“The people who are living in Fearrington who are witnessing these conditions are not making something up,” Chatham County’s Watershed Protection Director Rachael Thorn said. “The water does run cloudy; the stream has, or at least from my gathering, anyway, experienced physical changes. It’s not much ado about nothing.”
A Briar Chapel construction project lies adjacent to that waterway, and environmental officials say it’s fair to say the construction is contributing to increased turbidity in the stream.
But according to Thorn, the “Briar Chapel SD East” construction site is following all state and county protocol to limit sediment runoff into those waterways. It has been fully compliant in following the county’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Ordinance, and has received zero out of more than 40 Notice of Violations her department issued in 2018.
“Those turbid flows that people are witnessing can theoretically be coming from a site that is completely in compliance with my regulations,” she said. “And that is the case here.”
Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton has walked the stream with a Fearrington resident and with an enforcement officer from Chatham County Sediment and Erosion Control. She says that the quantity of water flowing into the stream is the issue.
“The volume of water is what’s sloughing off the banks,” she said. “And when you walk back there, that creek pretty quickly becomes a canyon because there’s just so much erosion.”
In a recent statement, the Briar Chapel development calls itself “one of the largest green communities in the Triangle outside of Chapel Hill.” The community uses stormwater retention ponds and silt fences during construction. And the development reports that it is preventing the emission of over 78 million pounds of greenhouse gas pollution and making up 39 percent of “green-built homes” statewide.
“We pride ourselves on being good stewards and doing all the right things,” said Mike Scisciani, vice president of operations for Newland. “Obviously, our company is known for sustainability and green practices.”
The Briar Chapel development, which is owned by Newland Real Estate Group, is zoned using a Compact Community Ordinance (CCO) that officials say took five years to develop. The CCO is designed to support water quality and environmental sustainability.
From a reporting standpoint, the communication on the water quality issue seemed confused and disjointed. It wasn’t a clear which municipal group would run point for water quality issues in local streams, but eventually officials from the Chatham County Public Health Department and the Chatham Soil and Water Conservation each pointed to Rachael Thorn, the watershed protection director in Chatham County.
She told me that Chatham County’s Watershed Protection Department holds direct oversight for Briar Chapel’s compliance to erosion control regulations. With a few exceptions, the role of that department is to “permit and inspect all land-disturbing activity in the County.”
But the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) oversees post-construction stormwater issues because, at the time of Briar Chapel’s inception, Chatham County did not have a stormwater program. Thorn acknowledged the complexity of the issue.
And another Fearrington resident, Mary Ann Woehrel, seemed unsure about local regulations and construction permitting.
“I don’t know what the regulations are in North Carolina,” she said. “I don’t know how that is affected by the EPA. And I think all of these standards are under a tremendous amount of pressure.”
I asked Woehrel if she thought transparency issues had been at play, but she didn’t think that was the case.
“I think it’s a problem of expertise at lower levels,” Woehrel said. “And a lot of people just don’t know where to go. I think they’re frustrated with it, but they don’t know that much about it.”
Sutton says the stream’s turbidity poses a threat to the aquatic ecosystem.
“The whole reason that this matters is that, with the turbidity, with all that sediment going downstream, it smothers all of those macroinvertebrates,” Sutton said. “It drowns their habitats … if you don’t have those macroinvertebrates that provide all of those essential eco-services, then you don’t have a healthy stream.”
According to a guide Thorn provided, “Sediment restricts the amount of sunlight reaching aquatic plants, reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen in our waters. Sediment degrades the beauty of our waters by increasing the cloudiness of the water.”
Thorn says the current regulations are not “good enough” to apply to the actual conditions in Creekwood Creek.
“Briar Chapel SD East is in compliance with erosion control,” she said. “And yet, the stream flowing to Fearrington is turbid. That’s what’s going on. And Chatham County is aware of it. The state’s aware of it. And the problem is real, but there is no answer to it, and it’s not a satisfying situation to the people that live there.
“But,” Thorn added, “we have gone above and beyond the limits of what we can do to try to correct for it, address it and enforce everything that we’re capable of enforcing.”
Have more questions about water quality in Chatham County? We base our journalism on reader questions, so send them our way if you would like to inspire further reporting!