Students pitch in to see if water is clean enough to drink (Spring, 2009)
May 08, 2009
Not all of the projects taken on by the Daniel A. Okun Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) require its members to travel to far-flung places to make a difference. Chris Heaney, a postdoctoral fellow in biostatistics at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, is leading a project just outside the Chapel Hill-Carrboro, N.C., town limits in unincorporated Orange County.
The Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood has housed the county landfill since 1972, and many residents are concerned that it may be contaminating their drinking water. Because the area is unincorporated, many families get their water from wells, rather than through the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, which provides water for many homes in the county. Excluding nearby homes built by Habitat for Humanity, about 38 percent of homes in the neighborhood don’t have access to public water, and only 3 percent have access to public sewer, Heaney says.
There is a potential for ground water contamination, but it is hard to prove where the contaminants that end up in the residential wells are coming from, says the Rev. Robert Campbell, a neighborhood organizer. Contaminants have been found in test wells around the landfill, he adds.
In its project with the neighborhood, Engineers Without Borders will take a survey of the water and sanitation infrastructure in the community. If grant money becomes available, the group will work to identify tests of well water that could be performed, Heaney says.
The residents would like access to the public water and sewer system. Information provided by EWB could provide compelling support for a community development grant application to make that happen, Heaney says.
“We have borne the burden for over 37 years now (because of the landfill’s proximity to the predominantly black neighborhood),” Campbell says. “Let’s do the right thing.”
Campbell says he turned to the UNC Chapter of EWB after the group’s name popped up a few times while he was reading about environmental issues. Campbell says the neighborhood residents wanted to work with a group that would be able to conduct the surveys and tests without fear of repercussions from local governments.
Members of the group impressed him right away. Campbell had promised a few members that he would take them on a tour of the neighborhood, but when they arrived, Campbell was still picking up trash on the side of the road with some other residents, as they frequently do on weekends. The Engineers Without Borders members immediately started to help.
“There is a lack of belief that there can be problems like this in our local community in the United States,” Heaney says. “We often take it for granted in the United States that these services are going to be provided.”
“Because of that moment of compassion, I believe they are the ones that can help us,” Campbell says.Heaney believes it’s important that Engineers Without Borders’ work not focus solely on international issues. If the group can help provide water services throughout the world, it can and should work to provide them at home as well, he says.”There is a lack of belief that there can be problems like this in our local community in the United States,” Heaney says. “We often take it for granted in the United States that these services are going to be provided.”
— Natalie Gott
View more photographs of EWB’s work on Flickr.
Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.