An official with the state Division of Water Quality says the environmental agency is within days of issuing a notice of violation to the Metropolitan Sewage District of Buncombe County following a nearly 6 million-gallon sewage spill on April 30, though it is unclear whether — or how much — the agency will be fined.
Chuck Cranford, supervisor of the surface water protection section of the Division of Water Quality, said his agency will review the circumstances of the leak and other information before they determine a whether to issue a penalty or what level of penalty the spill would incur.
“Normally, a spill of this magnitude would predicate a fine,” he said. “But we don’t always issue a fine. It really depends on the circumstances. MSD is an excellent operator and that goes far in our decision.”
Thomas Hartye, the general manager of MSD, said the agency plans to respond to the violation with a more in-depth report about the spill that occurred during a pump replacement project done by subcontractor Gilbert Engineering. Immediately after the incident, it was reported that the spill pushed 7 million gallons of sewage into the river; MSD’s most up-to-date reports indicate the spill volume was closer to nearly 6 million gallons — still a level not documented since the blizzard of March 1993 knocked out power to the treatment plant for several days. That report will likely include many more details about how the spill occurred.
While a leak of this magnitude is rare, the subsequent action in the hours and days following the spill highlight how officials with MSD, public health and environmental agencies and private environmental groups respond to public health and water quality emergencies. And while MSD appears to have met legal requirements for a discharge of this magnitude, those actions still raise questions about how – and when — officials must notify the public during such an event.
Launching a chain of environmental oversight
The MSD was established under an act of the state legislature and is a nonprofit, publicly owned utility that provides wastewater collection and treatment services. It treats an average of 16 million gallons of wastewater daily. It is regulated by the state Division of Water Quality, which is itself authorized by the federal Clean Water Act through a permit program to control water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters.
Cranford, with the Division of Water Quality, said MSD must report a leak greater than 15,000 gallons within 24 hours. A mandatory report to those officials by MSD, says that 5.86 million gallons of contaminated water reached surface water — or roughly 1 million gallons of sewage per hour.
Hartye, with MSD, said the agency first contacted the state Division of Water Quality. Officials followed that call with ones to the MSD board of directors and to the media. According to the report filed by the MSD, state water quality officials were alerted at 8:40 a.m., five minutes after the incident that led to the spill and before the spill had actually gone into the French Broad River.
“They called before it happened,” confirmed Cranford, referring to the delay between the repair mishap and the moment the contaminated water entered the waterway. According to the report filed by the MSD, the leak reached the river at its treatment plant in Woodfin and was stopped at 2:45 p.m. later that day.
When is the public notified?
According to guidelines of the permit, spills greater than 15,000 gallons mandate that the public be notified – but not immediately.
In fact, the permit specifically says that the agency must issue a press release to all print and electronic news media providing coverage in the county where the discharge occurred, and a public notice be issued within ten days of the event. A news release was issued on May 1, and a public notice appeared in the May 5 print edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times. Carolina Public Press did not receive a copy of the notice.
“This was a very unusual event and hasn’t happened in my career,” said Hartye, who added that MSD also shared information with media reporting at the scene of the spill. “One of our lessons is to assemble a collective email list so we can quickly broadcast up-to-the minute information to everyone who needs the information.”
MSD officials also said the agency stayed in close contact with health officials in Madison County, where the river flows after it leaves Buncombe County.
Jan Shepard, Madison County’s health director, said she was contacted shortly after the spill by both MSD and state water quality officials.
“There was lots of timely communication throughout the day,” Shepherd said, adding that her department went on to notify local businesses, municipalities and the U.S. Forest Service of the spill.
According to a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, it is the responsibility of the local health departments to determine if there is a risk to public health in the event of a sewage leak. State health officials may get involved if flooding or backflow sends sewage into homes.
Marc Fowler, the Buncombe County environmental health director said in an email that the Buncombe County Health Department became aware of the spill through the local media.
While public parks were not closed in Buncombe or Madison counties, MSD placed a yellow “keep out” sign warning the public of “sewage contaminated waters” at the entrance to Ledges River Park — a popular destination for kayakers located in Alexander, in Buncombe County, downstream of the spill. The sign at Ledges Park was removed on May 2.
The sign may seem a rather insufficient public warning given the rate of sewage flowing into the French Broad River, but, according to Fowler, test results provided by MSD showed fecal coliform bacteria counts dropping quickly in the hours following the spill.
By Wednesday morning, the day following the spill, the count was 430 coliform cfu/100ml at Ledges Park and 320 at Hot Springs Bridge in Madison County just after noon. According to Fowler, depending on rainfall, a “normal” count is usually between 0 and 600.
Who considers public health?
While state water quality officials have the authority to determine the impact of a spill, it is the local health director who has the right to take action to issue an imminent health hazard notice related to a spill of sewage, Fowler said.
“A local health department has the option to provide recommendations and/or guidance only if current conditions indicate a risk to health,” Fowler said in an email.
Cranford agreed and said “the folks that make calls about public health are the local health departments. Our job is to make sure MSD is in compliance with their permit and to enforce it.”
Cranford said that recent rains diluted the impact of the spill and that the high flow of the river also increased the volume of contaminated water from the treatment facility. Cranford says his agency took water samples from the site of the spill downstream to Hot Springs in Madison County.
“They picked a good time to mess up,” said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper and employee of the Western North Carolina Alliance. His job is to serve as a river advocate and to monitor water quality in the French Broad River watershed in North Carolina.
Carson said he was notified of the spill by a call from WLOS-TV at approximately 11 a.m. on the day of the accident. He arrived at the scene at noon.
“I felt that the MSD did a pretty good job in the aftermath,” said Carson, whose organization independently monitored water quality following the spill. Carson said his organization’s water samples aligned with test results from both MSD and DWQ. Carson also issued recommendations after the spill through Facebook about whether it was safe for swimmers to go into the river in certain locations.
“The MSD is a pretty competent group and this was an accident rather than the result of neglect,” Carson said. “At the same time, it was a large spill. I’d like to seem them receive some sort of fine so other operators don’t get the wrong message that you can have such a large accident without penalty.”
Ultimately, the concern of events like this one is the chance they will happen again, Cranford said. “We’ve already had discussions about this: the why, when, how and what of events like this in the future,” he added.