French Broad River healthier but pollution continues

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The French Broad River weaves in and out of four Western North Carolina counties and affects people throughout the region. Pollution of the river is better than in years past but problems continue. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

From fishing to swimming to bathing to drinking, the 117 miles of Western North Carolina’s French Broad River affect the people, animals and ecologies of the four counties they cover. The river serves the populations of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties as a site for recreation, a source for drinking water and, unfortunately, a stockpile for waste, too.

An examination into records from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Water Quality, discussions with environmentalists and governmental officials and an analysis of how different groups in the area work with preserving the river’s water quality demonstrate the scale of the river’s importance.

NCDENR data from the past 18 months shows a number of pollution problems and violations, but river quality advocates communicate the tremendous improvement from decades ago when “the river was too thin to plow and too thick to drink,” said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper with the Asheville-based environmental nonprofit Western North Carolina Alliance.

While it is not the biggest threat to the water quality of the French Broad River, direct pollution into the basin’s surface water is the most perceptible and regulated problem when it comes to the river.

State allows pollution but fines violators

Wastewater treatment plants and facilities, municipal collection systems and private companies serve as the most visible points and sources of pollution, and it is the state’s primary job to work with and regulate them.

As required by the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act, any entity that plans to discharge a form of wastewater directly to a body of water must receive a federal permit given and enforced by the state. The majority of the permits are part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, while the rest are case-specific permits. In North Carolina, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources allots the permits and ensures compliance.

Depending on the type, each permit recipient is allowed a certain amount of pollution discharge daily. “The permit is a permit to pollute,” said Bob Sledge, environmental specialist of NCDENR’s Division of Water Quality in Raleigh.

Based on data pulled and verified from NCDENR’s archives, there were 48 permit violations by 20 different public and prviate entities in the French Broad River basin from the months of January 2011 to May 2012. The fines given by NCDENR totaled more than $59,000.

Of these, the top three public violators of their permits were the city of Brevard, Buncombe County schools and Henderson County. The top three private violators were Henderson’s Assisted Living and Mountain View Assisted Living, two Mizpah Healthcare assisted living homes in Henderson County; Travel America’s Candler Travel Center; and Fletcher Academy Inc.

Top violator: City of Brevard

The city of Brevard’s wastewater collection system received more violation charges than any other facility, public or private, in the 18-month period. Its fines totaled $31,825 and were largely accumulated in January 2012, according to NCDENR records.

Brevard City Manager Joe Moore said the lack of attention to the collection system has been the primary reason for permit violations. “For several years in the past, we just have not reinvested back into our infrastructure,” Moore said.

The City of Brevard’s sewer system is nearly a century old. Problems with the system have contributed to the municipality’s pollution of the French Broad River and subsequent permit violations. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

Like many municipal sewer systems, Brevard’s system is nearly a century old, serving some of the oldest parts of the city. The age of the system contributes to its problems, an Asheville Division of Water Quality official said.

According to Moore, Brevard has invested $2,495,000 into locating the problem areas – mostly leaks in the underground sewer system – and repairing them with the employment of hired engineers and monetary grants. The city has continued to monitor the repairs throughout the rainy season and has seen great improvement.

“It was not only to do the right thing for the right thing’s sake,” Moore said. “It was a concerted effort because the French Broad is significant in Brevard’s economic, cultural and historic success.”

“While it’s taken longer than I wanted, in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here, we really have seen tangible progress,” Moore said. He attributed this success to the understanding and partnership from NCDENR’s Division of Water Quality regional office in Asheville.

Chuck Cranford, supervisor of the Surface Water Protection program at Asheville’s Division of Water Quality extension, said the office was impressed with Brevard’s investment and commitment to resolving the problems.

“The City of Brevard has undertaken tremendous efforts to identify issues within their collection system and pursue repairs and upgrades to eliminate (stormwater system overflows),” Cranford said.

Cranford said the division plans to negotiate with the city to settle the penalties associated with its violations. However for Moore, it is imperative to continue to invest in the city’s collection system.

“When it comes to infrastructure maintenance…it never ends,” he said. “It’s when you stop reinvesting is when a problem occurs.”

According to NCDENR’s Sledge, Cranford, and Division of Water Quality Public Information Officer Susan Massengale, the point behind the permitting and violation fines is to protect and improve the water quality of the French Broad River, and the way to succeed is to work with the problem facilities.

But direct pollution to the river is not the most serious threat to the four counties’ moving water. The real culprits are two that are less likely to be noticed — sediments and stormwater.

Coming from Carolina Public Press tomorrow, July 25: How sedimentation and stormwater impact the quality of the French Broad River.


Special Report

Read Carolina Public Press’ ongoing special-report coverage of water quality in and around the French Broad River here.

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About the Author

Katie Bailey

Katie Bailey is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at bkbailey@live.unc.edu.

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