Something stinks in Greensboro
Something smelled bad in Greensboro last week, but which of two former Cone Mills plants caused the stench?
On Oct. 8, after the Greensboro Fire Department investigated the odor, WFMY News 2 reported its source as “sludge” in a waste lagoon at the former White Oak plant at 1354 16th St., which closed last year after 112 years of operation.
On Oct. 10, representatives of the GFD and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality told me the lagoon was behind the Printworks Proximity Plant at 1700 Fairview St. That plant, constructed in 1913 and closed in 1977, is six blocks south of the White Oak plant at the intersection of 16th & Fairview. Last month, YES! Weekly reported the Printworks site would be rehabilitated as a $54 million residential/commercial complex by the Wisconsin-based Alexander Company, supported by the city with $1.2 million in funds from a 2016 housing bond.
My subsequent investigation indicated that both seemingly-contradictory claims of the smell’s source were correct. The wastewater lagoon is behind the Printworks site the Alexander Company is redeveloping at Fairview and 9th, but is the property of White Oak Ventures LLC, owner of the larger and more recently closed complex on the other side of Buffalo Creek.
A WFMY News 2 article dated 08/10/2018 stated that the GFD traced the smell to the White Oak plant, where “some type of sludge” was being removed from a lagoon “toward the end of 9th Street, where the old abandoned section of Cone Mill [sic] is” and explained that “a crew was out there digging up ‘organic material permitted by the State Department of Environmental Quality.’”
On Oct. 10, after contacting the GFD, I received a call from Battalion Chief Thomas Suddarth, stating “they’re draining one of the lagoons behind the old Printworks Plant, the Cone facility, and that’s at the end of 9th Street off of Fairview.” Suddarth gave me a contact number at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which he said was the permitting agency. He explained that a DEQ-permitted contractor was “taking this organic material out of this lagoon and it’s being transported to be used as fertilizer off in areas of southern Rockingham and northern Guilford County.”
Later that day, DEQ deputy communications director Bridget Munger returned my call and explained that the waste recycling contractor Synagro was “removing residuals at the Greensboro facility” and “that in order to clear out the lagoon they’ve got to have to agitate the material that’s in the lagoon in order to be able to churn it up to pump it out.” This, she said, was “the source of this odor that everyone is detecting,” adding that Synagro was “hoping to have it done within four to six weeks.” She also stated that the DEQ regional office “is working with Synagro to see if they have more options to neutralize the odor – I understand that there are chemicals or substances they can add that might able to eliminate some of the smell it’s producing at this point.”
On Oct. 11, several hours before the storm, Munger left a message on my voicemail with answering questions I’d asked the previous afternoon.
“The original purpose of the lagoon at the Synagro facility was to restore treated effluent water from their textile processes.” This, she explained, was “not sewage,” but
“wastewater from processes in their textile production.” She also said that the lagoons seemed to have been built “around 1977,” as “that is the earliest mention of their construction we have in our records.”
I intended to drive out to the site and see for myself, but Tropical Storm Michael had other plans. On Friday morning, I visited both sites. I detected no noticeably foul smell at 1700 Fairview St. and saw no evidence of a Synagro crew at work, although storm damage and still-receding water made me leery of venturing more than a quarter-mile east on 9th where it ran beside the Printworks plant and became a service road.
I spoke to several staff members at the Smith Senior Center at 2401 Fairview St., across from the Southern end of the extensive White Oak complex. They claimed to have noticed a foul smell in the neighborhood, which one compared to rotten eggs and another to excrement, for the last week, but couldn’t tell which site it was from. They did mention seeing a lot of activity across the street, but nobody remembered anything that looked like waste-removal trucks.
With the visit not yielding clear answers, I called Chief Suddarth and requested clarification as to whether the lagoon being drained was the property of Proximity Printworks or the White Oak site. “What I was told,” he replied, “is that it’s the old Printworks because White Oak is at the intersection of Fairview and 16th.”
While I was speaking to him, NC DEQ communications director Megan Thorpe left me a voicemail saying “I just wanted to confirm the address for you; it’s 1700 Fairview and it is the old Cone Denim plant.”
As I later learned, the former Cone Denim plant nearest the lagoon is indeed at that address. This made it a natural assumption that the lagoon was actually part of the Proximity Printworks facility and not the site named by WFMY that is over a half-mile away.
That assumption proved incorrect, as I discovered when I emailed David Vos, Development Project Manager for the Wisconsin-based Alexander Company that owns the Proximity Printworks site. “The lagoons are actually on the White Oaks Plant site,” he replied, “but are located on the south side of Buffalo Creek, adjacent to our site, so I understand the confusion. We are aware that they are mitigating the waste treatment facility and that they have been working on that site for quite a few months.”
But who owned the White Oaks plant?
WFMY News 2 did not identify the person or company behind the brief statement they read on the air, but the complex sported signs displaying “Samet Properties,” a phone number and the single word “Available.” I was transferred to David Greene, who identified himself as vice president, development, told me that, despite the prominent “Samet Properties” signs, the White Oak plant was not actually a Samet property, adding “I would have to check internally to see if it’s a property we’re looking to lease on behalf of somebody else.” He also claimed to be unaware of any odor from the site. “What I can confirm is that it’s not a property we own, but if it’s somebody we’re representing, you can always go to the registrar of deeds and look up the property online.”
Because Samet broker Chris Lowe’s email address was the first one associated with the corporation to come up in a Google search, I wrote Lowe requesting a statement from someone representing the White Oaks site. At 10:39 p.m. on Saturday evening, I received a reply, not from Lowe, but from Samet director of development Brian Hall, who wrote: “Please see the statement below from the property owner we represent.”
That was followed by this unattributed statement reproduced here in its entirety (bold-face is used to indicate the verbatim quotation):
Currently work is ongoing to prepare the former White Oak facility and property to be repurposed for other uses within the community. Part of this process involves cleaning out the permitted waste water treatment facility that is located on the property. The work that is currently being done is a process to remove bio-solids from the basins, which will be used by farmers as natural fertilizer for fields. Bio-solids are defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility… that can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.” October is usually the best time for such removal with drier conditions and the need for fertilizer on farmer’s hay fields. The unusually hot temperature, humidity and overcast days have allowed for a stronger smell than usual. We apologize for the odor and effect this may have on neighboring homes and businesses and are working as quickly as possible to complete the process of preparing the site for a new use. Though it is weather dependent, the bio-solids removal is expected to be completed in approximately 6 to 8 weeks.
Lacking the name of any person or organization owning or representing the site, I followed Greene’s suggestion and looked up the property online. On 01/08/2018, Vesting Deed 8011-1175 transferred ownership of the White Oak plant from Cone Denim LLC to White Oak Ventures LLC, with a registered address at 2130 N. Tryon St. in Charlotte. The North Carolina Secretary of State Business Registration search engine turned up a Limited Liability Report for White Oak Ventures LLC, dated 05/08/2018. J. William Dellinger, with the same registered address in Charlotte, was listed as the agent, and Gregory Brown, with a registered address in New York City, was listed as the LLC member (i.e., owner). Should either respond to my email request for clarification, this article will be updated with that response.
This is not the first time that odor from the White Oak plant caused complaints in District 2 and other parts of Greensboro. The 05/18/2004 News & Record article “Smelly bacteria swim in Cone plant pond” by Eric J. S. Townsend and the 05/19/2004 follow-up, “City will cite Cone Mills over sewage” by Matt Williams, describe how a chemical used in the dying of a special denim spread from the mill’s wastewater-treatment ponds to the Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant and spilled into Buffalo Creek. This caused not only an unpleasant smell in Northeast Greensboro but threatening the city’s state water permit with unacceptably high levels of phosphorous.
Then on 10/19/2005, the same publication’s article by Amy Dominello, “Smell breaks loose in 2 areas,” described “a stinky week for some Greensboro residents” due to Cone Mills “dredging sludge” from “a wastewater pond at its White Oak plant,” although the bulk of the article was about attempts to identify and locate the source of a different “mystery smell” near the tank farm on Interstate 40.