Featured photo: Greensboro’s Bingham Park has been closed to the public since April. (photo by Marielle Argueza)

It’s a hot and humid afternoon in Greensboro. School just let out for the day, and the faint tune of an ice cream truck jingles in the distance. A big, yellow school bus rolls through the Morningside Homes neighborhood. It squeaks to a stop, and a little boy jumps out and into the arms of his sister and cousin.

Across the street sprawls 12 green acres at Bingham Park — just a skip, hop and a jump away from the family’s home. On a summer day, it’s the perfect place to play. Instead, it’s blocked off by a chain link fence. That’s because Bingham Park is a cover up — literally.

Bingham Park is situated on top of an old unlined landfill. (photo by Marielle Argueza)

Between the 1920s and 1950s, the site served as an incinerator and landfill for waste from the US military and Guilford County. Landfills weren’t lined back then, allowing for a host of adverse compounds to leach into the site’s soil and groundwater. Then, in the 1970s, the city covered up the landfill and called it Bingham Park.

Until April of this year, the park was open — with precautions. Signs posted around the property warned visitors to not eat the dirt or drink from the stream that runs across the grounds. But once new guidance around acceptable lead levels in soil from the Environmental Protection Agency dropped in January, the city rushed to close down the park three months later and put up the fence. 

“They didn’t even tell us they were putting up the gate; that was a shocker,” said longtime Bingham Park area resident Antwuan Tysor.

City council is slated to make a decision on the future of Bingham Park this month, which could impact the health and wellbeing of thousands of Black and low-income Greensboro residents for generations to come.

The park, which is located in the 27401 ZIP code, is home to a predominantly Black population — more than half of the residents are Black, according to 2020 Census data. The demographic makeup stems from 70 years ago, in 1951, when Morningside Homes, a segregated community for Black families, was built to the west of the landfill. Fifty years later, in 2002, the development was demolished to make way for Willow Oaks, a mixed-housing and mixed-income community built as a federal housing redevelopment project

Morningside Homes, a segregated community for Black families, was built to the west of the landfill in 1951. (photo by Marielle Argueza)

Spencer Street draws a stark line between the bright and modern townhomes of Willow Oaks and the older houses and apartments across the way.

Tysor grew up on the other side of Spencer Street and has lived in a home overlooking the park for 13 years. It was once a respite for Tysor and her children.

“As a little kid, I used to play over here,” Tysor told TCB as she gazed out over the park. “We used to all hang out here. Didn’t know it was on a hope and a prayer.”

“Look at it,”  she mused. “It’s beautiful.”

Acknowledgement of the dangers in the park began in the 2000s when the park’s basketball court began to crack, which led NCDEQ to eventually designate the site as an inactive hazardous waste or pre-regulatory landfill.

The court, where Tysor’s son used to play, is now inaccessible. That’s because the park has been designated a “brownfield,” or an area that has the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant, leading to complications in the property’s reuse, redevelopment, or expansion, according to the EPA. There are approximately 450,000 brownfields around the U.S. according to the agency.

A map of brownfield locations in North Carolina

For years, Tysor and other Bingham Park residents had no idea that what lay beneath the topsoil could harm them and their loved ones through adverse health effects.

In the last few months, the city has begun plans to remediate the park by transporting the contaminated soil to one of three landfills. One of the options — White Street Landfill, which is situated four miles south of the park — has been met with pushback from residents who live around White Street and Nealtown Road, an area that is also home to predominantly Black and lower-income families.

Studies have shown that landfills and other environmental hazards including factories and industrial farms are disproportionately located in communities of color and poorer areas.

A view from inside White Street Landfill (Photo by Gale Melcher)

Although the park has long been an environmental hazard, the fact that it’s taken so long to be addressed has been painful for residents around the park.

“Truthfully, I feel sad; I feel that they don’t care about us,” Tysor said. “I’m pretty sure if we were on another side [of town], this would have been fixed by now. We’re the last to get anything fixed over here.”

The price of pollution

According to the EPA, populations living within half a mile of a brownfield site were more likely to be from minority demographics, poorer and non-English speaking. The CDC outlines the health risks of living in the vicinity of a brownfield including poor air quality, lack of options for physical activity, poor quality housing options, and higher risk of disease and early death.

In February 2023, the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission voted for full remediation, meaning that the dirt from the park will be taken away and placed in an area where it won’t harm anyone. So far, the city has identified three landfills where it can be dumped: Uwharrie Landfill in Troy, Great Oak in Asheboro and the city’s own White Street Landfill. 

Recognizing the damage brownfields have on communities, the EPA awards grants or loan assistance to local municipalities to help clean and redevelop brownfields under the Brownfield Program. And it’s been a success for many communities since the start of the program in 1995. In 2023, the EPA awarded $215 million to 267 communities to help with clean-up problem areas.

In 2008, Coventry, RI received a grant after purchasing a former dumping site and wetland in 2000. The funds went toward cleaning up the site and wetland restoration. When the site was cleaned-up it was added as an expansion to a neighboring nature conservation area. 

Council Bluff, Iowa received $600,000 to clean up the residual contaminants in the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Building, which was then redeveloped into a performing arts and cultural center for the town. 

But EPA Brownfield Assistance Grants are not an option for Bingham Park. And that’s because the city is at fault.

“For sites contaminated by hazardous substances, persons, including government entities, who may be found liable for the contamination under [the Superfund law] are not eligible for grants,” the EPA’s eligibility requirements states.

Signs near the park caution about playing in the soil or consuming water from the stream. (photo by Marielle Argueza)

The city of Greensboro’s Environmental Compliance Support Manager Richard Lovett explained there is a good reason for that limitation. 

“They don’t want to reward people who contaminate the site,” he said. “Otherwise Exxon would be like, ‘Yeah! Bring it on!’ It’s really unprecedented to get funding for a site when you’re the responsible party.”

Given the expense of remediation, the city has made the argument that using White Street Landfill would be the cheapest and easiest option. Currently, the landfill only accepts yard waste and construction debris; filling it with Bingham Park’s dirt would close White Street Landfill eight years earlier than originally anticipated.

Some of the city’s key decision-makers are leaning toward that option.

Bingham Park falls under the purview of District 1, represented by Councilmember Sharon Hightower. In an interview, Hightower explained her views on moving Bingham’s dirt to White Street. 

“It’s just basically to move unsafe dirt into a safe space,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into it, and there’s a lot that people don’t understand.”

One of the remediation options would have been to place a cap on the land, which would prevent contamination by placing a barrier such as clay, concrete or asphalt to cover the ground. While it would have been a cheaper option, it wouldn’t get rid of the toxic material. 

“We don’t want a Band-Aid,” Hightower said, “We want a complete remediation to be able to have a safe park in a neighborhood that’s deserving of it.

A sign outlines why the park is closed. (photo by Marielle Argueza)

So far, the city has identified between $14.7 and $22.1 million in federal and state funding for the project. The state legislature is providing the city with up to $11 million, which could be shared with other city projects, plus $7-10 million from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality which will determine the final amount. The city also requested $4 million for the project from a federal appropriations bill through the office of Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), but received $1.1 million. Even if the city acquires the maximum amount of funding, they will still need to bring millions of dollars to the table to accomplish the task.

Because the nature of the waste is industrial and toxic, there are only a few sites big enough, close enough and safely regulated enough to take it. According to the city, White Street Landfill is the safest and the most cost-effective option at an estimated $24-$27 million and a four-month timeline. The two other sites the city considered would require at least $10 million more and add months to the project. 

But the area around the landfill has a history of contamination as well.

While Bingham’s toxic dirt would be going to White Street’s lined landfill, two of its landfills are unlined, which previously led to contaminated soil and groundwater. In 2011, a study by the NC Division of Public Health confirmed there were elevated rates of pancreatic cancer in residents around White Street Landfill. 

Even with some of these concerns, Hightower said that she wants the city to move forward as quickly as possible so they don’t miss out on using funding.

But just because the numbers make sense to the city, doesn’t mean they feel fair for residents. The residents of both neighborhoods, who are majority Black and low-income communities, are asking their policymakers, why them? 

White Street Landfill is located in District 2, and the district’s councilmember Goldie Wells said she’s still making her decision.

“I’ve just been trying to help people become educated about it. I’m going to make an informed decision on what I think is best for all the citizens,” said Wells, who is encouraging residents to visit the landfill. 

For residents like Malinda Pagett, who was an outspoken participant of a June 12 community meeting on Bingham Park, the city’s plan is an example of environmental racism. 

Pagett told reporters at the meeting that she and her neighbors were not fans of any of the solutions and the waste, regardless of the prices, shouldn’t be anywhere near people — and in particular, Black people. 

If you want me to make an informed decision, fine, give me the information,” she said. “But, again, don’t take [the waste] out of one Black community and put it in another.”

How pollution impacts health 

The waste of Bingham Park has followed Malinda Pagget throughout her life. She grew up in the Bingham Park community in the ’70s, when the property was first redeveloped as a park. She didn’t know that she was playing in contaminated dirt and water. 

As an adult, she moved out of the city for work, then returned to Greensboro only to settle in the White Street neighborhood. News of the city’s plans to decontaminate her childhood neighborhood by moving the waste just blocks away from her current home didn’t come as a surprise to her. 

“Every time, they’re putting these things in Black neighborhoods,” Pagget said. “It’s always one Black neighborhood against another, and we’re tired of that.”

Resident Malinda Pagett voices concerns at a meeting about Bingham Park and White Street Landfill. (Photo by Marielle Argueza)

One of the factors that keeps the EPA’s Brownfield Program funded is the federal government’s acknowledgement that it’s usually socioeconomically disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of brownfields and superfund sites. Superfunds are essentially brownfields that are more heavily contaminated and thus exhibit more toxic properties.

According to the CDC, the census tract around Bingham Park has high rates of asthma, high blood pressure, kidney disease, depression, but not cancer.

According to the CDC’s National Healthcare Statistics, people who live in the census tracts near White Street Landfill have a lower life expectancy of 71-75 years. In the census tract around Bingham Park, the life expectancy is around 73.1. Both fall below the state’s life expectancy of 78 years. 

A 2016 Risk Assessment memo by Analee Thornburg, the State’s Department of Environmental Quality’s Bingham Park project manager, concluded that none of the eight parcels tested at Bingham Park exceeded the EPA’s or the state’s maximum allowable excess cancer risk. Follow-up analysis in 2015 using bores in the soil identified asbestos at levels greater than 1 percent, which is considered hazardous to human health according to various health and safety agencies. 

Other organizations have been looking for solutions, too. In October 2020, doctors Stephen Sills, Sandra Echeverria and Kathy Colville were awarded a three-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to “develop a framework” for addressing environmental justice concerns in communities of color, which included building a case for remediating the park and streams. In an email to TCB, Echeverria explained that the project involved establishing the Bingham Park Environmental Justice Team to center “community voice, direct lived experience and leadership development” that would guide park remediation. While other studies have revealed that incidences of pancreatic cancer were more frequent around the White Street Landfill, the team did not publish a health-risk study for Bingham Park.

During a March 2023 meeting between the doctors, BPEJ team members and city leaders, team member Courtney Ullah, who lives in Willow Oaks, explained that her children love to play in parks, but the closest one — Bingham Park — “has never been a clean, safe option to enjoy.” Instead, their family has to visit other parks around the city.

“It is too far to walk to these parks with little legs, and sometimes we just simply can’t afford to spend the gas money,” Ullah said. “As a mother, I feel guilty when I am unable to load them into our shared car to drive them to enjoy what they naturally need: Fresh air, green spaces and human connection.”

In August 2023, a two-page policy brief resulted from the group’s project. It included recommendations for full remediation and site restoration, engaging and empowering the community, adopting an environmental justice framework, sustainable land use planning and design, continued monitoring of the site and improving inclusive engagement across the state. 

A glimpse at the future

Without help from federal agencies, there are few options for cities like Greensboro to reverse the harmful environmental state and prevent further health disparities created by their own hand. But it is possible. 

In California, the city of Berkeley is leveraging about $2 million in state grants alongside specific taxes to keep up with remediation and improve pathways and bathroom facilities at Cesar Chavez Park, a former city landfill. 

In other cities, various entities sometimes pool their resources to get large-scale projects done. 

This is the case for Philadelphia’s beloved FDR Park, which was developed nearly 110 years ago and has been affected by surrounding construction projects and industrial dumping at the site. 

Because of its importance as a drainage basin during the flooding season, its cultural significance and its proximity to the airport, the Philadelphia International Airport became a major collaborator with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Fairmount Park Conservancy. In 2022, the airport agreed to a $30 million wetland restoration project as a part of a $250 million, three-year redevelopment plan of the park. 

So what’s next for Bingham Park? 

A stream cuts through Bingham Park. (photo by Marielle Argueza)

At the upcoming July 23 city council meeting, city leaders are slated to make a decision regarding whether to support full soil removal at Bingham Park using White Street Landfill as a dump site, according to the city’s Parks and Recreation Director Phil Fleischmann.

Hightower remains optimistic, and hopes that people will “understand that it’s a business decision; it’s not pitting one community against the other.”

Rather, “it’s the embrace of us all to work together, and say, ‘Let’s make a cleaner, safer space,’” she said. “That, to me, is the best, smartest decision that we can make.”

The city’s next public comment period will be held on July 9 at 5:30 p.m. Sign up to speak by visiting form.jotform.com/202643500426041.The July 23 meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. at 300 W. Washington St. in the Katie Dorsett Council Chamber. View the meetings online on the city’s YouTube channel or on their website.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡