State officials uphold fine for illegal dumping at Falls Lake

State officials uphold fine for illegal dumping at Falls Lake

- in Environment, Top Story
Aerial images of the Puryear land in 2016, when it was grassy, and 2018, when it was bare dirt
These photos provided by state environmental regulators as part of the case file, show the Puryear property covered in green vegetation. The second photo shows the land after it was scraped and dirt was illegally dumped on it.

Property company must pay $22,000, but other actors in dumping scheme have yet to be held accountable

James Puryear stood before members of the Environmental Management Commission, hoping for a break.

His company, JTT Properties, had been fined $22,000 related to illegal dumping within a mile of Falls Lake, the main drinking water supply for Raleigh.

“Taking a fine that big,” Puryear said, would financially wound his rental business. Based in Wendell, the company owns several properties, including a $1 million beach house on Emerald Isle, according to tax records.

The EMC subcommittee over civil penalties was unmoved. On Thursday it denied Puryear’s appeal of the fine, which had been levied by state officials for five persistent and ongoing violations that threatened the Falls Lake watershed. In the unlikely event Puryear would have been penalized the maximum amount — $25,000 a day per violation — he could have been on the hook for $56.2 million.

Puryear’s violations, though, are not isolated. As Policy Watch reported in August, persistent and systemic illegal dumping has occurred in rural Durham County near the lake for more than three years. Although the stories and players keep changing, one man has consistently been at the center of the violations, including Puryear’s: Russell Stoutt III, who so far, has eluded serious repercussions for his actions.

In addition to illegally dumping on his own property on Benny Ross Road, Stoutt is also responsible for the wrongful disposal less than a mile away, Puryear said, on his land on Southview Road.

This photo, taken June 5, 2019, shows a steep slope with no stabilization, which could allow dirt to illegally enter the stream. (Photo by Ruth McDaniel)

Stoutt brought dirt in from construction sites, ostensibly to “fill in large ruts and even out the land,” Puryear said. But Stoutt didn’t just fill ruts. He filled roughly 1,000 feet of stream with boulders or sediment, some of it four to 10 inches deep. Another 600 feet of riparian buffer were denuded of trees and scrub — both of which play an essential role in filtering sediment and contaminants. One-tenth of an acre of wetlands was damaged from bulldozing, grading and clearing.

“Russell Stoutt told us it would be OK to go into that stream,” Puryear told the EMC members. “We were misdirected. I had no idea how dishonest he was.”

Landowners are accountable for disposal violations on their property, even if someone else is responsible for the dumping. Durham County officials repeatedly have claimed they couldn’t independently confirm the identity of the person dumping on Puryear’s land.

Stoutt’s attorney, Ben Clifton, told Policy Watch in August that he had “no knowledge” of Stoutt’s involvement in the dumping on Southview Road. On Thursday, Clifton told Policy Watch that two years ago, Stoutt sold “several loads of dirt to Richard Scarborough,” who was leasing the property from Puryear. “He has had no involvement with any dirt at this property since.”

Photo of large rocks filling a stream bed, part of an illegal dumping operation (Courtesy NC DEQ)
These photos, taken by state environmental investigators in April 2018, show a streamed illegally filled with rocks and a thick layer of sediment. The stream feeds a tributary to Falls Lake, the main drinking water supply for Raleigh.

Clifton said the firm 1st Class Trucking, not Stoutt, has since delivered dirt to the property, which would include times when the violation occurred. 1st Class Trucking, based in Oxford, could not be reached at any of the three numbers listed for the company. The Secretary of State’s office dissolved the corporation in 2017 for failing to file annual paperwork. The Department of Revenue also suspended the company’s status in 2013 for failing to pay its taxes.

Puryear also has explaining to do. He told state officials in an email that his company is a small organization. “The penalties that have been laid upon us would cripple us financially,” he wrote to state officials. “The bills alone from Sage will cost us $5,000 to $10,000 alone.”

However, JTT Properties has significant assets, according to tax records. The company owns 33 acres on two tracts on Southview Road in Durham County. It owns and rents two luxury one-bedroom condos — valued at $210,000 and $223,000 — at Morgan and Dawson streets in downtown Raleigh. JTT also owns a beach house on Emerald Isle worth upward of $1 million.

When Policy Watch asked Puryear about the company’s properties, he replied, “What’s that got to do with anything?”

S toutt began hauling dirt on to Puryear’s Southview Road property in early 2018, according to public documents, while state and county officials were getting wise to Stoutt’s illegal dumping on Benny Ross Road.

(Stoutt was fined more than $100,000 by state and Durham County officials, but has yet to pay.)

James Puryear of JTT Properties waits to petition members of the Environmental Management Commission to reduce or eliminate his $22,000 fine related to illegal dumping near Falls Lake (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Clifton, Stoutt’s attorney, previously told Policy Watch that his client hasn’t “done anything to violate the Durham County ordinances on purpose” and that the penalty “is not final.”)

In April 2018, a neighbor complained to state and federal inspectors about activity on Southview Road. DEQ and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction within the Falls Lake watershed because it built and manages the reservoir, visited Puryear’s property. The Corps cited Puryear for several violations but at that time did not assess a financial penalty.

In June 2018, Puryear sent an email to the Corps stating he had a “meeting with Russell” and his Southview Road tenant, Richard Scarborough “to work on a restoration plan with an engineer.”

Nonetheless, seven months later, very little had been done to repair the damage. Puryear had failed to communicate with state regulators about the progress, or lack of it. Puryear told the EMC he didn’t realize he was supposed to notify both the Corps and DEQ.

The Corps, though, also had questions. In response to an inquiry from the Corps about the status of the restoration, Scarborough wrote on March 6, 2019, that “forward progress virtually nonexistent. It took a while to get a hold of Rusty but after meeting with him he agreed to pay half of [the contractor’s] fee and help fix the area. … Fingers crossed that Russ man’s up!”

The next day, on March 7, DEQ levied the fine on Puryear.

In April, Puryear appealed. He wrote that he and Scarborough had hired someone “we trusted to know what the rules and regulations were in grading the site. I am not sure if the second person knew better about the stream issues or just didn’t care since we were letting him in to bring dirt on the site.

“I believe that it is common knowledge in the regulatory field of ecological things that this second person has been known to skate around regulations at other sites but my person that rents from me and I had no idea what his ethics were.”

Puryear told the EMC that over the summer and fall, contractors have cleaned out the stream, planted grass and installed matting to prevent erosion.

DEQ has visited the site twice in the last four months. Stephanie Goss, an environmental specialist with the agency, told EMC members that some boulders remain in the stream and dirt is still entering the waterway. “This is not we expect to see,” Goss said. “Or typical of what we see.”

Ruth McDaniel, a soil scientist and farmer who lives on Benny Ross Road, has long complained to state and county officials about the dumping in her neighborhood. She told Policy Watch after the EMC meeting that she doubts the dirt hauled to Puryear’s property was topsoil, as Puryear has claimed. She provided photos that showed metal, plastic and other debris mixed with clay.

“That is never what makes topsoil,” she said.

She disagreed that with Puryear’s claim that the dirt was being used to improve the land. “This was not a case of a landowner simply filling in a few low spots on their land. This was hundreds of trucks that came in daily for several years,” she said.

“There was often so much sediment on Southview Road that our cars would slide in the mud that was created after rain events, and I’m sure that quite a bit of that sediment ended up in Falls Lake. This has been a hard thing to see happen so close to a critical water source, and the Southview Road site is unfortunately one of many dumping sites in our community.”

[Editor’s note: Ruth McDaniel serves on the board of a small, Pennsylvania-based family foundation that recently made a $5,000 grant to Policy Watch. Policy Watch was not aware of this association at the time it began reporting on this story. None of the funds will be used directly in coverage of issues related to the Falls Lake dumping story.]