DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — A serene, peaceful and quiet sight of nature. That’s how Durham native Pamela Andrews remembers the area of Lick Creek, in southeast Durham.

Pamela Andrews looking at Lick Creek (Chloe Rafferty/CBS 17)

“This area was never developed until now,” she said.

If you visit the area, you’re likely to see – and hear – construction.

“It became so alarming to see the trees coming down, the creeks looking like blood, that we just knew we had to do something,” said Andrews, president of the nonprofit Preserve Rural Durham.

Clayton Properties Group, Inc., an out-of-state developer with a construction site in the area, is now facing a lawsuit out of Durham.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit Thursday on behalf of the nonprofit group, Sound Rivers.

Claims against developer

The lawsuit claims pollution from construction upstream is coming down and turning the water an orange color, which locals call “tomato soup.”

“This is the most extreme sediment pollution that I have seen in the entire Neuse watershed, and it’s ongoing,” said Samantha Krop, the Neuse Riverkeeper with Sound Rivers. “There are some incredible humans here who have told me stories about a time when they remember these creeks running clear.”

She showed aerial photos to CBS 17, where she says sediment from the developer’s Sweetbrier construction site flows into Martin Branch, which connects to Lick Creek.

According to Krop, it then flows under Highway 98 into Falls Lake, a drinking water source for all of Wake County.

“This is sediment pollution at work. This is not natural, and it’s not inevitable,” Krop said. “This is a water quality issue, and it impacts aquatic ecosystems and also our communities.”

Based on her samples, Krop said the pollution in the water has been 10-to-20 times higher than the state water quality standard “on many occasions,” and violates the Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit claims this is destroying habitats downstream.

“We knew that Clayton was contributing to this clean water problem, indisputably,” Krop said. “The remedies that we’re looking for is really for the developer to make sure that sediment is not leaving their construction site and entering waters of the state. That’s the law and we just want to see the law adhered to.”

“I hate that it’s actually come to that. That we didn’t have people that would listen to the citizens and make changes without it coming to a lawsuit,” Andrews said. “We’re hoping that others take a step back and say, ‘What can I do better?’”

Sweetbrier construction site (Chloe Rafferty/CBS 17)

Working to find a solution

Andrews says Preserve Rural Durham’s efforts to solve the bigger problem have paid off in part, with some amendments written. However, she says more work needs to be done.

“The Storm Water Erosion Control amendment was passed mid-summer, but unfortunately we’re not seeing drastic changes,” she explained. “Some of those measures were in place and the erosion off the property that’s not even a football field from Lake Creek was pouring red sediment into the creek all weekend.”

She said there’s a Tree Preservation Amendment that could possibly make some changes, but the nonprofit group has reservations.

“How much will this really do, especially when [the developers] are given variances? The variances are a big concern,” Andrews said. “When you have a buffer, then you have variances that allow them to come in with septic systems tearing down trees to build five extra houses, and that’s not okay. It defeats the purpose of the buffer.”

She said the nonprofit hopes these exceptions and variances won’t be allowed, and that buffers will be enforced.

Preserve Rural Durham plans to attend the Durham Board of County Commissioners meeting Monday at 7 p.m. to advocate for these changes.

Looking ahead

“If we find out that other developers are also contributing to [the pollution], indisputably, we will certainly make sure that issue is addressed as well,” Krop said.

CBS 17 has reached out to Clayton Properties Group, Inc. for a statement and has not heard back.