CHAPEL HILL- Bethan Eynon is an attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights representing the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association, or RENA. She says the EPA investigation should not put a stop to the work of the Rogers Road Task Force, which has been working on a sewer plan for the neighborhood for nearly eighteen months.
“We don’t believe that the county is prohibited from even discussing the Rogers Road situation and getting sewer infrastructure to Rogers Road through the task force,” says Eynon.
The task force is made up of elected leaders from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County as well as representatives from RENA. During the past year and a half, the group has been developing a remediation plan for the neighborhood that’s lived next to the landfill for four decades.
That remediation plan features the extension of OWASA sewer service to the area, at an estimated cost of about $6 million dollars. The task force was in the process of creating a cost-sharing plan to present to the various local governments this fall, when the EPA announced in June it would investigate a complaint filed by RENA years ago.
The complaint alleges that the county planning department intentionally discriminated against residents of the traditionally low-income African American neighborhood by not applying for federal grants to build sewer infrastructure, even as the county sought similar grants for other communities.
In response, County Attorney John Roberts warned commissioners they can’t take action on the remediation plan or allocate funding while the EPA investigation is ongoing.
Eynon worries the county’s stance will bring the work of the task force to a standstill.
“Unfortunately, if their position is that strong on this issue, I don’t think we can change their mind,”says Eynon. “But we can make it clear to the public and the task force and the other elected officials that we don’t believe their position is necessarily correct.”
After filing discrimination complaints in 2007 and 2011, RENA officials received no response from the federal government, leading many to believe the complaints had been forgotten. Though some are concerned that this new complication could delay the work of the task force, Eynon says it’s not clear if RENA has the authority to drop the complaint.
“We’re not sure if RENA has control over withdrawing the complaint because of the way the complaint was filed with the EPA,” says Eynon. “We don’t want to promise to the county that RENA can withdraw the complaint if it possibly can’t, procedurally. I don’t want the task force and the public to think that was the case, then find out later that we can’t withdraw the complaint.”
Eynon says ultimately, the goal of all parties is to find a way to bring sewer infrastructure to the area. She believes progress by the task force could address the issues raised in the original complaint.
“The end goal of the EPA complaint and the task force is the same, which is to get sewer infrastructure to Rogers Road, and that’s RENA’s first priority, whether it’s through the EPA complaint or through the task force, which we believe has been very productive in the last six months,” says Eynon. “So if sewer is no longer an issue in Rogers Road, then the EPA complaint is moot.”
The timeline for the investigation is unclear, but Eynon argues that’s no reason for the group to lose momentum.
“We don’t feel like everyone should assume that it will take a long time and use that to further delay the task force meetings,” says Eynon.
EPA officials declined an interview request from WCHL, writing in an email: “We are committed to processing and resolving complaints as expeditiously as possible. The investigation is currently open, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the details of the investigation.”
Eynon says she’ll be consulting with EPA investigators to clarify RENA’s position moving forward. Meanwhile, the task force is preparing to hold its final meeting on August 21.
At that meeting the town managers will present a report examining the logistics of extending sewer service, but its not clear to what extent county officials plan to participate.