Durham fences off park stream due to potential contamination, strong odors

The City of Durham is telling the public to stay out of the creek running through Burton Park after a chemical company upstream found high levels of chemicals in its discharge, the latest step in a yearlong investigation into contamination coming from the site.

That contamination has been linked with Brenntag Mid-South Inc., which holds liquid and granular chemicals in bulk storage facilities and repackages them for truck and rail shipment, according to a report prepared for Brenntag by environmental consulting firm GTA Associates.

GTA found that an outfall into the creek contained levels of ethanol, acetone and toluene above the state’s surface water quality standards. It also found elevated compounds in groundwater and stormwater on the site and chronic toxicity in the stream.

Durham officials directed Brenntag to test the creek that runs through Burton Park downstream of its facility to see if the chemicals moved that far, an effort expected to begin Friday at the latest.

Durham officials said the contamination does not affect the city’s drinking water. A press release said the steps are being taken “out of an abundance of caution.”

The source of the contamination on Brenntag’s property remains unclear.

Durham has issued two notice of violation against Brenntag since last July after finding black water coming from the site. The company has described spending upwards of $1 million transporting stormwater offsite and investigating potential contamination pathways.

GTA, the Brenntag consultant, said water sampled right after being treated at the company’s remediation system was not polluted.

“Therefore, (volatile organic compounds) appear to be introduced to surface water by another pathway, the most likely sources being onsite stormwater or groundwater infiltration to drains and surface water. Chronic toxicity is likely influenced by those two sources as well,” officials from GTA wrote in their Aug. 11 report.

GTA also warned that acetone may be breaking through the company’s remediation system because it was found in a sample taken immediately after the system should have removed it and there have been several spikes reported.

From the discharge pipe, the water flows into the unnamed creek. It then flows under N.C. Highway 147 and eventually through Burton Park.

GTA’s sampling report was submitted Aug. 16, and the city fenced off the Burton Park creek a week later.

The chemicals GTA found in June 27 samples taken from Brenntag’s outfall included:

  • Acetone: 4,550 parts per billion (NC in-stream target water values for fresh water are 2,000 ppb). Commonly associated with a nail polish remover odor, acetone can irritate skin and breathing it in can cause confusion, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

  • Ethanol: 27,990 ppb (NC in-stream target water value is 5,000 ppb)

  • Toluene: 41.6 ppb (NC freshwater standard is 11 ppb). The ATSDR says toluene may impact the nervous system, causing memory loss, confusion and dizziness among other impacts. Long-term exposure could cause hearing loss or impact the ability to see color, while it could cause developmental damage in children if a pregnant person is exposed.

Black water in a city park

Durham issued its first notice of violation against Brenntag on July 14, 2022, following a routine investigation of Burton Park.

Staff from Durham’s stormwater division found black water containing low dissolved oxygen levels and with “a decaying odor” in the creek running through the park. Staff followed the water upstream to the southwestern corner of Brenntag’s property, where they saw similar water draining from several outfalls.

“The conditions of the receiving tributary downstream of Brenntag Southeast are markedly different than any other Durham stream. The stream bed has a thick black precipitate lining it. There is black floc suspended in the water column. The water itself is black in color,” Christine Cailleret, then Durham’s environmental planning and compliance coordinator, wrote in the July 2022 notice.

Investigators also looked upstream of Brenntag and found no strange water there. The company had failed to prevent discharge other than stormwater from reaching its drainage system, according to the notice.

This map shows where City of Durham stormwater officials conducted their inspection of black water containing the smell of decay initially found in a creek running through Burton Park. The officials traced that back to Brenntag’s East Pettigrew Street site, resulting in two notices of violation.
This map shows where City of Durham stormwater officials conducted their inspection of black water containing the smell of decay initially found in a creek running through Burton Park. The officials traced that back to Brenntag’s East Pettigrew Street site, resulting in two notices of violation.

Durham issued a second notice of violation on Oct. 21, 2022, alleging that the company had failed to implement two steps required by the July notice that would prevent further pollution. Those included mapping the extent and impacts of the July discharge and performing a streamwater analysis of Third Fork Creek that could be used to help establish targets for the cleanup of the Burton Park stream.

“The failure to analyze and map the extent of contamination by the August deadline is likely to have allowed contaminants to progress farther down the watershed,” Cailleret wrote.

During a February inspection, city officials saw more black material in the water and smelled an odor of nail polish remover.

Brenntag officials said they conducted a follow-up visual inspection and saw the black material but did not smell nail polish remover, only decay. The company also noted that it doesn’t handle acetone and hasn’t for years.

Old cotton and acetone

Brenntag has been working with city officials for more than a year to identify the source of the pollution, Verena Blaschke, a spokeswoman for the company, wrote in an email to The News & Observer.

That source is still unknown.

Brenntag’s Pettigrew Street site was initially used as a City of Durham reservoir. In the late 1800s, the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company opened a textile mill there and used the reservoir as an industrial lagoon. Consultants hired by Brenntag wrote that lagoon “may have contained textile mill waste” in their report to city officials.

The lagoon was filled in the late 1930s, and Brenntag started operations in the early 1980s.

The black material found in the water could be old cotton dating to the 1890s because it contains decaying organic matter, an environmental lab hired by Brenntag hypothesized.

As part of its effort to limit contamination, Brenntag captures all stormwater runoff from the site and ships it elsewhere to be disposed.

“We will continue to work very closely with the local authorities and continue to commit internal and external resources and expertise, in coordination with city officials, until this issue has been resolved,” Blaschke wrote.

This story was produced with financial support from the Hartfield Foundation and the 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.