Bingham Park on hold due to environmental concerns

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Bingham Park north of Willow Oaks in Greensboro.
Jeff Sykes

The late summer sun shines crisply down across the varied elevations of Bingham Park. It’s quiet and peaceful, beautiful almost, until you remember that a City of Greensboro incinerator once sat on this spot adjacent to Maplewood Cemetery.

The ground is firm as you rise up the terraced-like landscape, past the softball field to the basketball court with its 8-inch thick concrete surface that’s cracked and sinking. Over the past five years, several environmental impact studies have been completed for this 11-acre site situated between English and Bingham streets in East Greensboro, just north of the Willow Oaks community. Those studies have found elevated levels of arsenic, iron, lead, and manganese in the soil and the green waters of an unnamed creek that runs along the south edge of the site before it flows beneath English Street and onto property owned by Guilford County Schools.

City officials want to upgrade Bingham Park but state environmental regulators are urging caution as they try to determine how much soil contamination remains on the site, which was the location of a waste incinerator from the 1920s until about 1955.

That inquiry has left a paper trail involving every level of government, from the Army Corps of Engineers to the State Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, and on down to the City of Greensboro, Guilford County and GCS, which operates Hampton Elementary School just across English Street from the former incinerator site.

While it may just seem like a story about bike paths and basketball goals, the layers beneath the surface reveal a complex web of detective work and environmental regulation.

The cracked 8-inch concrete at Bingham Park due to sinking soil.

The recent trail begins in 2010 when a nearby apartment complex was sold. As part of the due diligence, a local environmental firm researched the history of the site. The firm interviewed a former Greensboro landfill supervisor who told investigators that a solid waste incinerator may have been operated by the city “in the vicinity of the Maplewood Cemetery.”

“He stated that the ash generated by the incinerator could have been buried in the area west of the (apartment complex) that is now occupied by a park.”

Director of Cemeteries, Tommy Ravenell, confirmed that by telling interviewers that “a solid waste incinerator and landfill were formerly operated on property located south of Maplewood Cemetery.”

About the same time, the City of Greensboro asked the environmental firm Kleinfelder Southeast to do a site assessment of Bingham Park itself. Phase I of the assessment documented in greater detail the history of the site. Historic fire maps showed an incinerator on the site in both 1925 and 1950. A 1931 city directory listed “Greensboro City Incinerator” on Bingham Street near the Southern Railway.

A 1922 newspaper article quoted then Greensboro city manager, P.C. Painter, saying that the new city incinerator would cost $20,000 and be operational sometime that year. The incinerator would have a capacity to burn 30 to 40 tons of trash a day, “which should handle the city’s garbage without trouble.”

The city developed Bingham Park in 1972, according to the environmental report, which the city requested in 2010 in order to consider upgrades to the facility.

Kleinfelder Southeast found visible evidence of environmental debris”” shards of glass, ash, molten metal””but their work didn’t involve extensive soil or water sampling. Their primary obstacle was the lack of information about the waste stream burned in the incinerator, which they deemed “an environmental concern.”

The company did drill 11 monitoring wells across the site and found levels of benzene, iron, mercury and lead in excess of federal soil screening levels.

One of many monitoring wells on the 11-acre property between Bingham and English streets in East Greensboro.

The city’s inquiry ground to a halt when a parallel site assessment conducted by the state surfaced later in 2010. Schnabel Engineering South was employed by DENR as part of a massive effort to remediate landfills abandoned prior to 1983.

Schnabel performed a much more rigorous examination of the site, comparing topographic maps from 1925 and 2008 to determine that “two former drainages and a marsh area were located on the central part of Bingham Park.

“The two drainages and the marsh area have been filled in up to 10 to 25 feet with disposal material,” their report states, concluding that areas south and east of the incinerator contained five to 20 feet of material.

A further complication arose when a city planner provided Schnabel with a 1925 map showing the incinerator on Bingham Park. The map “labels the western part of the W.M. Hampton Elementary School property as a ‘Dump.'” The city’s solid waste director at the time, Jeryl Covington, told interviewers that “ash from the incinerator was dumped on the Bingham Property. She said that ash was possibly dumped onto the W.M. Hampton Elementary School property.”

Covington told investigators that the military used the incinerator during World War II to burn clothing and other items.

Schnabel determined that the site sloped south and east, toward the unnamed creek that flows across the southern portion of the site. The stream is a tributary of South Buffalo Creek, which eventually hits the Haw River and then on to Jordan Lake. The stream was once a swamp.

“Dumping ash in swampy areas was a common practice and some area residents said that ash had been dumped in the suspected area,” the Schnabel report states. “The swamp area extended across what is now South English Street and onto the Hampton Elementary School property. (Covington) reviewed old school construction records, but did not find any notations of a dump or finding ash.”

Hampton Elementary was built in 1960, just a couple of years after the incinerator shut down. A comprehensive survey of hundreds of pages of DENR records indicates that environmental engineers believe the western portion of the school property, a wooded area near English Street, contains contaminated soil. In 2015, DENR requested that engineers expand their search to include a field behind the school.

Crews were back on site at Bingham Park this week.

The engineering firm S&ME took over the state contract in 2011 to continue the site assessment at Bingham Park. An initial letter from the state’s Division of Water Quality urged S&ME to safeguard against further soil erosion. The area was classified as “environmentally sensitive” due to the stream’s eventual path to Jordan Lake.

“It is imperative that any activity taking place at this location eliminate runoff that would further degrade the fragile systems that surround this area,” wrote DWQ’s Nora J. Deamer. “There is a need to reduce stormwater volume, nutrient, sediment and bacteria load from this site.”

As environmental assessment activity picked up at the site, City of Greensboro officials seemed excited to be able to begin improvements to the park. State officials, who noted in 2011 that their work could take up to three years, tamped that down.

By June 2012, S&ME completed its initial testing and found levels of arsenic, iron, lead, manganese and ammonia in excess of preliminary soil remediation goals throughout the Bingham Park site. Stream water and sediment tests on the Hampton School property returned levels in excess of health limits for the first time. That fall, DENR awarded the company a $108,000 contract to determine the extent of contamination in the area.

Testing over the next two years involved hundreds of soil samples and thousands of pages of environmental and lab reports. S&ME expanded their search on the Hampton School property and identified two new zones of contamination.

Earlier this year, Greensboro Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson began asking DENR for clearance to make site improvements to Bingham Park. Concurrently, S&ME proposed an $88,000 state contract to evaluate soil coverage and to screen for landfill gas.

A March 13 letter from state hydrogeologist Analee Thornburg to Wilson outlined the steps necessary before any park enhancements could be built. Bingham Park is a 13-acre landfill site on which state contractors found waste on nine parcels, including 10.7 acres of city property.

“Waste is up to 26 feet thick, and there is no apparent soil cover,” Thornburg wrote. “Due to levels in excess of soil remediation goals, lead is identified as a contaminant of concern in soils for a portion of the site.”

Thornburg noted that streams and wetlands in the area are under the jurisdiction of the Army Corp of Engineers.

“Tributaries to South Buffalo Creek flow immediately adjacent to and through the disposal area, and waste material is exposed in the creek,” she wrote. “Surface water and stream sediment sampling results identified several detections above applicable standards.”

As of August, DENR has asked S&ME to conduct additional tests to identify lead concentrations above 10,000 mg/ kg. City officials traveled to Raleigh on Sept. 2 to receive preliminary results, which DENR anticipates will be made public early next month. !