A Durham housing developer is allegedly violating the Clean Water Act, putting Falls Lake at risk

Falls Lake is going through a few things.

Fertilizers flow from agricultural fields and enter its tributaries. Toxic compounds known as PFAS, the sources of which remain a mystery, have been discovered at and near the dam. When it rains, silt silt flows from large, clearly defined swaths, choking the nearby streams that feed the lake.

Although the lake is the primary drinking water source for half a million people in Raleigh, Garner, Knightdale, Rollesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon, land clearing on the Durham County side of the watershed is a major contributor to pollution. One development in particular, Sweetbrier, a 616-home and townhome subdivision being built by Clayton Properties/Mungo Homes, is central to the lawsuit filed in federal court last week.

Sound Rivers, A Nonprofit environmental advocacy group, cExamining Durham County and state inspection records, in addition to sampling their water quality, Clayton/Mongeau has allegedly violated the Clean Water Act more than 20 times since last year. Clay and dirt, collectively known as sediment, have been documented leaving the more than 200-acre property and entering Martin Branch and Hurricane Creek, which surround the site. Both waterways feed Lick Creek, a direct tributary of Falls Lake.

Mungo Homes is a division of Clayton Properties, headquartered in Maryville, Tennessee; The company operates in 18 states. Sound Rivers is represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Mongo Homes officials did not respond to emails seeking comment.

When completed, the Sweetbrier project will include 616 homes and townhomes on more than 200 acres in eastern County Durham. (Map included in federal court files)
This comprehensive map shows the location of the Sweetbrier development, red pin, in relation to the cities of Raleigh and Durham, as well as Falls Lake. (google maps)

Sedimentation in waterways is a serious problem. There are rules governing how much dirt can leave a development site and enter waterways, because bacteria can hitch a ride on sediment particles and enter drinking water supplies. Excess sediment can make it more difficult for utilities to treat and filter drinking water. When a large amount of dirt enters a waterway, it can kill aquatic life, destroying or impairing their habitat. Similar incidents occurred in Chatham County at the massive VinFast site.

Jonathan McNeil, Durham County’s erosion control supervisor, repeatedly warned Mungo about its failure to comply with its permit and asked the company to take “corrective action.”

Last February, McNeil sent an email to Michael O’Sullivan, the company’s director of land development, alerting him to “recurring, fundamental issues at the site…”. This included “open stream crossings with no ground cover, mud on the slopes leading down to the river… I took 68 photos of things that shouldn’t have happened…”

McNeil sent similar notices of noncompliance in January 2023, as well as in April, September and October 2022.

There are government standards for sediment in waterways, measured in “nephritic turbidity units” or NTUs. The higher the number, the more cloudy the water is, which indicates there is a lot of dirt. For most rivers and streams that feed drinking water supplies, the state maximum level is 50 BTU.

Since November 2022, “each time Sound Rivers has conducted turbidity sampling at Martin Branch, it has documented exceedances of North Carolina’s turbidity standards,” court documents state. Just two weeks ago, on August 31, the turbidity level at Martin Branch was more than 1,100 Newton units. Sound Rivers attributed this incident, and several others, to runoff from the Sweetbrier development. In addition, Sound Rivers documented exceedances of the state’s turbidity standard at Hurricane Creek four times in three months, also as a result of runoff from the site, according to court filings.

Sound Rivers is petitioning the court to find Clayton/Mungo in violation of the Clean Water Act, and to fine the company up to $64,618 per day, per violation, the amount allowed by law. Additionally, Sound Rivers is asking the court to require the company to “immediately cease its continued and ongoing violations,” and to remove any sediment for which it is responsible from the affected waters.

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