CPP investigates: Wastewater spills cited more than 50 times in WNC

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Biggest fines issued to Buncombe MSD, school system

Angie Newsome/Carolina Public press

Carolina Public Press analyzed 12 months of state environmental fines related to wastewater spills across Western North Carolina. Public entities in Buncombe and McDowell counties were among the top violators of their environmental permits. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public press

Wastewater managers across Western North Carolina were penalized more than 50 times for spills and overflows across the 18 westernmost counties in a 12-month period, a review of state documents shows.

Based on data Carolina Public Press reviewed and verified from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state environmental regulators issued 51 penalties to 24 different public and private wastewater management entities between June 2012 and June 2013 across the region. The fines given by the agency totaled $44,371.82.

Of these, the top public violators of their permits were Buncombe County Schools and the city of Marion. The top three private violators were A & D Water Service in Henderson County, Mizpah Healthcare assisted living homes in Henderson County and the Pavillon Treatment Center in Polk County.

The largest single fine, of $6,137, in Western North Carolina was issued to the Metropolitan Sewage District of Buncombe County for the nearly 6 million-gallon spill into the French Broad River on April 30, 2013. Buncombe County Schools was fined five times, totaling an original penalty of $7,404.

State environmental regulators, however, granted remission of three of these fines at North Buncombe High in light of “Special Order Consideration,” an agreement for remedial actions with established time lines. According to Buncombe County Schools, the actual fine paid by the school system was reduced to two smaller fines for Leicester and Fairview Elementary, a total of $834.

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 issued and enforced by the state. The permits are part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. In North Carolina, DENR’s Division of Water Quality approves the permits and ensures compliance.

Chuck Cranford, surface water protection supervisor for DENR, said that a fine is an incentive for operators to strive to remain in compliance with conditions of their permit and to be proactive in maintaining their systems.

He added that the determination to penalize is based not only on the size of the spill, but also on a history or pattern of noncompliance relative to their discharge permit limits.

“Some facilities may have operational difficulties, such as a small treatment system at a healthcare facility,” he said. “The strength or constituents of the wastewater entering the treatment plant can vary, complicating treatment. Places like that get our attention, including technical assistance or more frequent inspections.”

Yet civil penalties aren’t the only tool available to regulators. Permitted collection systems must have a capital improvement plan to ensure they are investing money in the system. Cranford’s division also provides technical assistance and guidance. Environmental regulators may also enforce specific timetables for improvements on wastewater treatment facilities having significant issues.

Last year, CPP reported that within an 18-month period (January 2011 – May 2012) the city of Brevard’s wastewater collection system received more violation charges than any other facility, public or private. Its fines totaled $31,825 and were largely accumulated in January 2012, according to NCDENR records.

During the time period CPP reviewed, regulators did not issue Brevard any penalties, Cranford said, because the city has entered an agreement with the state to conduct an in-depth analysis of their system and make all necessary improvements.

”They’ve invested a tremendous amount of time and money and continue to make very significant repairs and upgrades to their collection system,” Cranford said. “They happen to be in a difficult situation due to several factors, including the significant rainfall typical in their community and the age and condition of their system. This approach may take several years but it helps them better understand the needs of their system and set up prioritized actions and plans to return their system to consistent compliance.”

WLOS recently reported that Brevard monitored the system for six months and issued impact fees of more than $30,000 to Oskar Blues Brewery for wastewater pre-treatment. A brewery spokesman contested the city’s findings, WLOS reported.

In Buncombe County, DENR is currently working closely with North Buncombe High School, which has had challenges with their wastewater treatment facility over the past 12 months.

While a relatively small amount of wastewater leaves the school, it is discharged into Stanfield Branch, a small stream that requires the permit to contain more restricted discharge permit limits than other facilities located on larger bodies of water. The school is considering an alternative wastewater solution involving an onsite system that will discharge wastewater to the subsurface rather than the stream, Cranford said.

As part of the “Special Operations Consideration” for the school, Buncombe County Schools has appropriated $305,000 for system improvements to remediate issues at the wastewater treatment plant. The design phase is underway, and it will take about a year to complete the project, the school system said.

“For many communities wastewater collection is out of sight and mind, but now in the past decade or two it’s more of a priority,” Cranford said. “Many of the pipes were installed over 50 years ago and were constructed of clay or what’s called orangeburg pipe – made of fiber and pitch. Technology is much better now, but even a brand new pipe isn’t 100 percent watertight after exposure to the freeze and thaw cycle and ground movement. Dealing with water inflow and infiltration is a constant battle.”

State changes may restrict official help

Yet some critics say that providing adequate oversight and technical expertise to such systems may be in jeopardy due to budget cuts and other organizational changes at DENR.

Robin Smith, former assistant secretary of DENR, said that a transfer of the Division of Water Quality’s programs into the Division of Water Resources passed in the state budget may impact the ability of the agency to deliver the type of consultation Cranford is providing to North Buncombe High School. Budget cuts have already taken their toll — including the loss of a water treatment facility consultant in the Asheville office.

Smith says that the combined budget of the two programs mandates a savings of $2 million, or roughly 12.5 percent of the current budget, by June 2014.

That is a hefty cut, Smith said.

“The challenge is how do you cut and still meet all of the requirements of the Clean Water Act, use good science, provide good customer service for permitting, and deliver technical assistance,” said Smith, an environmental attorney in Chapel Hill who served for 12 years until she left state government last December.

In addition to budget cuts, WRAL in Raleigh reported in August that Gov. Pat McCrory has reclassified nearly 150 DENR directors and managers as exempt from being fired without cause or appeal – a nearly 600 percent increase from the number of exempt employees at state environmental agency under the Perdue administration. Critics say the administration is using the status to weaken environmental regulation in the state.

Despite the challenges of keeping up with one of the dirtiest jobs in the region, Cranford said he has no doubt we’re moving in the right direction to improve water quality. In fact, the region’s taken giant steps forward.

“When they started putting pipe in the ground to carry wastewater, there were no treatment plants — it all went into the river,” he said. “Then people were just happy to have it out of the streets and gutters. Our standards are much higher today.”

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Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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