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Advocacy and community action pushed for safe drinking water in Rock Hill

Core members of the Rock Hill Organization pushing for clean water in their community.

The Rock Hill community is getting safe drinking water through a joint effort by New Hanover County and CFPUA. If not for the community’s advocacy work, the problem may have gone unaddressed.

The Rock Hill community in Castle Hayne sits in an unincorporated area of New Hanover County. The population is majority Black, with a large number of elderly residents and people living on a fixed income.

Residents in the area aren’t connected to public utilities — they use private water wells and septic tank systems. When Chemours began testing people’s wells for PFAS contamination, Rock Hill residents reached out as well. Many residents were told they’d have to wait a period of four to six weeks to get tested — the few that went ahead, found their wells were contaminated.

As these results came in, some of the elderly Rock Hill residents reached out to Sokoto House, a non-profit community organization in Wilmington. Vance Williams, who works with Sokoto House said they needed help processing what they'd learned.

“The majority of the community were disconnected from some of the information. They didn't understand what was on the [testing] graph. They didn't understand what was on there. It had some high-level language, PFAS, the different contaminants, the percentages and things of that nature," Williams said.

Using the Community-Based Public Health Response to Violence (or CPrV model), Williams and his team of Community Health Workers were able to connect the Rock Hill residents to environmental organizations to help them figure out how to proceed. And CHWs canvassed the area to gather input from the community.

Due to their fixed income, residents in the area are unable to connect to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s water and sewer lines — which can cost thousands of dollars. Janice Gaines, the head of the Rockhill Community Organization told CFPUA that amount is simply not feasible for the residents.

“And they assured us, there is grant money out there. There is plenty of grant money out there that they can gift to us to help us get connected, but now we have to prove this, and prove that, to even get it," she said.

Cammie Bellamy, spokesperson for CFPUA admitted that without community action and organization, they probably wouldn’t have known about the contaminated wells in Rock Hill.

The process did take time, though. Community advocates went to the CFPUA board back in November of 2022, which started a larger and longer-term conversation about serving unincorporated areas of the county.

CPFUA’s engineering team identified 567 residences in unincorporated areas that were adjacent to utility lines but not being served. They sent letters to gauge interest in connecting to CFPUA.

“We really appreciate all of the work that the Rock Hill Road community has done to communicate with us, they've been extremely helpful in surveying all of their neighbors up there. And we know there's a long way to go to get them to the resolution they want, which is connection to water and sewer services," Bellamy said.

Officials needed an intermediate step, between the tainted wells residents have now — and connecting to CFPUA, which will take time, and money. Their plan: our community water pump stations.

New Hanover County Commissioners heard the pitch at their board meeting in April — and unanimously approved the plan. $40,000 is set to be allocated to the project from the FY’23 general fund with each water station costing $10,000.

While everyone involved agrees the pump station is a temporary solution, they feel positive about the first steps being taken.

Back in November, during that CFPUA meeting, County Commissioner and CFPUA board member, Jonathan Barfield, pushed for fast and deliberate action on the issue, stating it had been done before in a different community in 2013.

Back then, residents were dealing with failing septic tanks. The county acted quickly, Barfield said, taking steps to remediate the issue — and even fronting some of the cost.

“There’s a way to make things happen when you want to make those things happen," Barfield said.

In the end, community action and mobilization works, Williams said:

“You can get some real things done. The resilience lies inside of us, the only thing that we need to do is just galvanize, use our unity, to create great impact.”

Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.