CHAPEL HILL — Rogers-Eubanks is a residential neighborhood surrounded by the thriving towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, yet residents there lack the most basic of services: public water and sewer.
That these residents must rely on wells and septic tanks isn’t just an oversight of planning. It’s part of a pattern that pops up repeatedly in poor and minority communities, said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, an environmental scientist who studies disparities in access to public water and sanitation.
“It is very interesting to me there are many communities like that across the state,” said Gibson, assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Public Health. “It’s like the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about.”
Gibson recently received a $100,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to examine public water access issues, health consequences, and potential links to race and socio-economic status in North Carolina neighborhoods. Some of the communities she will study have had problems with contaminated wells and failing septic tanks.
Gibson says she plans to use Rogers Road as a case study and document its history.
“How did it wind up in middle of a neighborhood with services, without getting services?” she said. “And what are some of the public policies that get in the way of solving the problem?”
West End near Mebane and Midway near Pinehurst are two other neighborhoods in nearby urban centers that Gibson plans to study. But there will be many more.
“I think there could be dozens – at least one in every county,” Gibson said.
She said Jeffrey Engel, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and North Carolina’s director of public health from 2009 to 2012, helped inspire her to investigate these issues.
Engel said there are two types of households living in “water poverty”: those scattered in remote locations with no convenient access to public water systems and those like Rogers-Eubanks that remain “off the grid” despite proximity to water lines.
Engel says the omission of historically black neighborhoods from some urban water systems can be traced back to “Jim Crow-ism.”
“Most of these systems were put in the early 20th century, when the rule was separate but equal,” he said.
“The white community said you take care of your side of the tracks, and we’ll take care of ours. Unfortunately, many of the African American communities were cut out completely. They couldn’t afford to do what the majority white populations were doing.”
As health director, Engel said he tried to get an idea of how many developed neighborhoods in North Carolina were still using wells and septic systems, but even local health officials lacked specific information about their communities.
“Individuals are afraid to call and complain, because an inspector may come out and say, ‘Your septic system is failing, and it will cost you thousands to fix it,’” he said.
“The communities have been silenced by the threat that their homes will be condemned.”
He said Gibson and her research team’s first challenge will be in gaining the trust of residents.
“Community engagement is going to be huge,” he said.