Please find below a letter sent by East Durham, Lyon Park, Northgate Park and Walltown neighbors to leaders of the Durham City and County.  These concerns will be raised – from public comment – to the Durham City Council on February 5th.  The struggle continues.


Subject: Community Engagement, Policy & Budget Action needed on Durham Park Contamination

January 8, 2024
Dear Durham City and County leaders,

Community members in East Durham, Lyon Park, Walltown, and Northgate Park, along with our allies from across Durham, continue to monitor with alarm the developments around the safety of our contaminated neighborhood parks and the people who use them.

It has been more than six months since any formal communication – outside of website updates that lack meaningful detail – between the City and County and affected communities. During this time, a group of more than 50 people has been keeping a watchful eye on developments even as we continue to be shut out of decision-making that directly affects our health and safety.

On June 1, 2023, the Walltown Community Association called on leaders at Duke University, Durham County, and the City of Durham to initiate an action plan and to allocate resources for addressing the contamination with urgency.

City Manager Wanda Page responded that:

“City staff is planning to host information sessions with the communities surrounding these parks to help keep them informed on the progress of the assessment.

We are also engaging the Durham County Department of Public Health to assist with public education to the communities surrounding these parks to help ensure our residents have accurate information to better understand and address any lead exposure concerns in their homes.

Once the City’s environmental assessment is completed, I will publicly share our planned next steps of how we will address any findings.”

To our knowledge, these three things, which only partially address WCA’s original requests, have not happened. Perhaps most egregious is the lack of any opportunities to date for concerned community members to participate in decision-making about what happens with our parks. The information shared has either been superficial, in the case of site updates and “fact” sheets, or inaccessible, in the case of dumping a 400+ page technical report that even the most involved community members cannot wade through. The City and County have a responsibility to meaningfully engage with the public through two-way communication. To date, the only opportunity for this was a community forum last June from which the mayor and city council members were all absent, and the public officials who were present rolled their eyes at each other as community members spoke about legitimate fears for their health and safety.

The website update from November 2023 noted next steps with the NC Department of Environmental Quality. Our group reached out to DEQ in December to learn more and provide input, and they directed us back to the City.

Some of our concerns include:

Incomplete Testing

  • In addition to lead, incinerators are known to be sources of heavy metals and other toxic substances. The presence of other toxic substances is substantiated by the report, as there are a number of detected levels that exceed various EPA standards. Most importantly, the number of testing sites was limited to two sites from each park. They selected a site with high lead concentrations and low lead concentrations. There are levels of contamination for the heavy metals that exceed EPA standards at both high and low lead contamination sites. Currently, there is not enough data to make any definite conclusions other than additional testing for heavy metals and other hazardous substances should be expanded.
  • The Mid-Atlantic assessment did not test seven of nine playgrounds because of the presence of fabric liner topped with mulch. At Walltown and other parks, the liner is torn and visible through the top of the mulch. Playgrounds are designed for young children, who are among the most vulnerable to lead poisoning and other adverse health effects from lead and other contaminants.
  •  Mid-Atlantic reported that dense brush and poison ivy prevented testing in some park areas; those areas should be tested according to the work plan.

Limited Community Engagement

  • Our group was dismayed to learn that DEQ is carrying out additional testing without any public information session to share the findings of the August Mid-Atlantic report and respond to community questions, concerns, and incorporate our feedback into the next steps.
  •  For DEQ’s further testing results to be acceptable to affected community members, we must have a say in HOW the prioritization happens and WHAT additional research is happening. None of that has happened at any point.
  • We call on you to pause the work with DEQ until community input can be incorporated into the work plan and rethink the timing of the “in-person community conversations” scheduled to occur AFTER the prioritization is completed–when, from our perspective, it is too late.
  • As we’ve said before, the ongoing lack of engaging our communities is not only unethical but also reinforces and justifies the belief that we are not prioritized by the institutions that govern our common lives.

Lack of outreach and education from the County Health Department

  • The health department ended free testing for children and pregnant people after a short time, due to lack of uptake. The department did no marketing, community outreach, or community education sessions on how to mitigate risks from lead and other contaminants. This is low-hanging fruit. While children and pregnant people should be prioritized, exposure in people outside these demographics is also concerning.
  • Testing should be reopened for all Durham residents at the Health Department of all ages at no charge until the park contamination is remediated. We also request that the Health Department conduct pop-up blood lead testing in our neighborhoods, in churches, and/or childcare centers to increase accessibility of testing.

Budget and Policy Action Needed NOW

  • As you begin budgeting for the next fiscal year, we expect to see funds to address this crisis. Remediation will be ongoing over many years, and we urge you to consider a multi-year funding plan, starting with the July budget.
  • We urge you to make this YOUR issue. You can drive action on a critical public health and quality of life issue that affects so many of us across Durham. Please take action NOW.


East Durham, Lyon Park, Northgate Park, and Walltown neighbors