CHAPEL HILL – Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich says she’s worried that a year and a half of work by the Rogers Road Task Force might be grinding to a halt as the Environmental Protection Agency launches an investigation into claims that the county’s planning department engaged in racial discrimination.
“I’m concerned about it,” says Rich, who, along with Renee Price represents the county on the task force. “I think that we’re going to still move forward with recommendations. I think Chapel Hill and Carrboro can keep moving forward. Orange County on the other hand might have to stop.”
After decades of discussion and dozens of reports, plans, work groups and task forces, elected officials from the towns and county are on the cusp of crafting a cost-sharing plan to extend OWASA sewer service to Rogers Road, the traditionally low-income African-American neighborhood straddling Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County that’s hosted the landfill since 1972.
The sewer project is part of a landfill remediation plan that’s estimated to cost approximately six million dollars.
The Carrboro Aldermen say they’ll chip in nearly a million. The Chapel Hill Town Council wants to explore extending extraterritorial jurisdiction to the neighborhood to make it easier to spend municipal tax dollars on the Rogers Road sewer project. But Orange County Commissioners, who up until now have led the charge to make amends for the landfill, are keeping quiet.
That’s because the EPA recently declared it has jurisdiction to launch a federal investigation into allegations that the county planning department and OWASA discriminated against the largely African-American community by failing to provide water and sewer service to Rogers Road.
To read the EPA’s letter to the Orange County Planning Department, click here.
Rich says the county commissioners can’t take action on the task force’s recommendations until the investigation is concluded.
“We actually need to be very careful with how we move forward with this,” says Rich. “We know that it could take months, up to a year or more for this investigation to be complete.”
At stake could be a federal grant of $1.3 million awarded to bring sewer service to the Efland and Buckhorn communities in western Orange County.
The complaint filed by the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association, or RENA, alleges that the county’s failure to apply for similar grants to fund the Rogers Road sewer extension amounts to intentional discrimination.
The Efland-Buckhorn sewer grant was awarded to the county in December 2010. At that time, there was not a concerted effort underway by the towns and county to bring sewer service to Rogers Road. The current task force didn’t get its start until 2012, when the county commissioners’ decision to close the landfill spurred action on a remediation plan.
The EPA’s announcement that it was launching the investigation this June took many by surprise, including those who originally filed the complaint against the county in 2007. That complaint was expanded in 2011, following the allocation of the Efland-Buckhorn grant money.
Up until recently, Mark Dorosin was the lead attorney representing RENA. He says the federal agency took so long to respond to the allegations that RENA leaders thought the complaint had been abandoned.
“The EPA complaint was just sort of out there for a long time without any sort of information or feedback about what was happening,” says Dorosin. “They collected some information and then folks just didn’t hear anything.”
In the meantime, Dorosin was elected to the Orange County Board of Commissioners, one of the three local governments responsible for funding the sewer extension.
At the board’s last meeting in June, Dorosin put forward a resolution pledging the county to provide funding for the yet-to-be determined sewer plan.
The motion failed in a 5-2 vote, in part because other commissioners were wary of taking action during the on-going investigation. Speaking at that June meeting, Commissioner Alice Gordon argued against the resolution.
“The county attorney has advised the commissioners to exercise significant restraint when authorizing expenditures in this area,” warned Gordon. “I think we’re in a much better position if we just let [the task force] go forward.”
Since then, Dorosin says he’s decided to recuse himself from deliberations that involve the EPA’s investigation. He says he’s also stepped away from his role as RENA’s legal counsel.
“I have now withdrawn as legal representative of RENA with regards to that complaint, because obviously I would have a conflict representing RENA and being on the county commission,” says Dorosin. “I’ve also recused myself from the commission on any discussion or matters or any meetings related to that, so there can’t be any concerns about actual or potential conflicts of interest.”
But Dorosin hopes the work of the current Rogers Road task force can continue.
“It is good public policy for us provide those promised services and benefits to that community,” says Dorosin. “I hope that I can continue to be an advocate for that. I think it is not just in the best interests of Rogers Road, it is in the best interests of all Orange County that we honor those commitments and address the harms and impacts that that community has suffered.”
The task force is set to meet on Wednesday. It’s the next to the last meeting of the group, and elected officials are hoping to come up with solid recommendations to take back to each governing body in the fall.
While Chapel Hill and Carrboro may be ready to take action after the summer break, Orange County leaders could have their hands tied for the foreseeable future.
Penny Rich has served on the task force first as a Chapel Hill Town Council member and now as a county commissioner. She says she also wants to make sure that the remediation efforts don’t lose momentum while the EPA conducts its investigation.
“We can talk and talk and talk, but its not until we take action that it feels like it is really happening. My hope is that the investigation goes quickly and we can move forward with some action to help the neighborhood that has not been helped for so many years.”
The task force meets at 4:00 p.m. Wednesday July 18 at the Solid Waste Administration Center on Eubanks Road.