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The Bingham Facility is a research facility in western Orange County that has been owned and operated by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since the early 1970s. It currently supports research programs that utilize translational research models of various human diseases. Since the late 1940s, animal models of human disease have been integral to the University’s leading role in biomedical research that seeks cures through conventional medical treatment and gene therapy for diseases like hemophilia, von Willebrand Disease and Factor VII Deficiency.

Events of 2008-2010

For many years, with only one building on site, the University used the Bingham Facility primarily for research support, swing space and overflow space. In 2008, the University adopted a long-range plan that had, at the time, a goal of consolidating preclinical research space used in blood and muscular dystrophy research and cardiovascular research into expanded facilities at the Bingham location. Toward that end, UNC installed a second wastewater treatment system and constructed a second research building for large preclinical models for human disease, with plans for four more buildings subject to securing adequate funds.

In 2009, a series of problems occurred at the facility, including a leak from a large holding pond that allowed some highly treated wastewater to reach a tributary of Collins Creek. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued two violations for the incidents. The violations were for the method of discharge (leaking into the ground instead of being spray irrigated); they were not for contamination of the environment. Test samples taken from the monitoring wells on the site as well as the drinking water wells at the facility and at an adjoining property owned by the University have shown no pattern of contamination. The University stopped treating wastewater on site in late 2009 and instead began pumping and hauling untreated wastewater directly to OWASA for treatment.

The problems with the wastewater treatment coincided with substantial state budget cuts to the University, and the senior leadership at the University was faced with some difficult choices that ultimately led to cancellation of the expansion plans. The University had obtained funding for a third building, and it was already under construction. In the summer of 2010, The National Institutes of Health awarded UNC-Chapel Hill a $14.5 million grant from Recovery Act funds for the construction of buildings 4 and 5. However, there were no funds for building 6, and engineering studies indicated that the waste water treatment system installed in 2008—which had already been cited twice by DENR—could not accommodate the waste water that would have been produced from the operation of five buildings. UNC could not construct buildings 4 and 5 without investing many millions of dollars more to upgrade infrastructure at the facility. After a careful analysis, School of Medicine Dean William Roper decided to relinquish the $14.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and to cancel further expansion.

In February 2010, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Bob Lowman was appointed to oversee the rehabilitation of the Bingham Facility and to establish an ongoing dialogue with the facility’s neighbors and with representatives of Preserve Rural Orange, an advocacy group in rural Orange County. He also led the effort to modify UNC’s existing wastewater treatment permit from DENR and mitigate any damage done to existing wetlands.

Lowman initiated several changes to reduce water usage and wastewater generation at the Bingham Facility. The original permitted wastewater treatment system (the one with no DENR violations) has now been refurbished and the newer failed system completely removed. Instead of plastic liners, the holding ponds have now been lined with clay, which meets requirements for the final soil filtration step of treatment. DENR approved a permit modification allowing these changes. Construction to implement these changes was completed by the middle of 2014.