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By Greg Barnes

In the summer of 2009, nearly 16 million gallons of untreated sewage spilled from Thomasville’s aging sewer system into North Hamby Creek, Abbotts Creek and eventually High Rock Lake.

The spill, caused when a manhole cover collapsed after a heavy rain, went unreported for more than 20 days. The discharge led to an investigation by the criminal branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which found the volume of the spill had been vastly underreported. The city’s utilities director quickly resigned.

The spill drew the ire of Yadkin Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that attempts to keep the river’s watershed free of contamination. Two months after the spill, the organization blamed the sewage for a large fish kill in a cove of High Rock Lake.

The spill may have been Thomasville’s largest, but it was far from its first, or its last. From June 2004 until shortly after the spill, Thomasville reported to state environmental officials 38 sanitary sewer overflows totaling more than 2 million gallons, according to the Greensboro News & Record.

More than 100 overflows would follow, largely the result of a crumbling sewer system in desperate need of maintenance and repair. The discharges spilled into creeks and streams that feed the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake, the second-largest lake in North Carolina behind Lake Norman.

Figures from the state Department of Environmental Quality show that Thomasville reported 130 overflows between Jan. 1, 2012, and October of this year. Of the state’s smaller towns and cities, only Eden and Asheboro had more.

In many cities, aging sewer pipes eventually fail. Photo courtesy: City of Brevard

Municipalities across North Carolina have had an abundance of sewer overflows, caused in large part by aging sewer systems that have gone unreplaced or unrepaired.

Sewage and wastewater from overflows can contaminate streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries and beaches, causing serious water quality problems and threatening drinking water supplies.

An analysis of records from the state Department of Environmental Quality shows that 8,510 sewer overflows were reported between 2012 and October of this year.

A master plan released last year projects the state will need as much as $11 billion over the next 20 years to fix the problems.

At least one city, Brevard near Asheville, has taken the initiative to solve its sewer woes on its own.

Thomasville didn’t have that option.

Sewage signature

By 2013, sewer problems had gotten so bad in Thomasville that Yadkin Riverkeeper threatened to sue the city. The organization invited JoAnn Burkholder, director of the Center of Applied Aquatic Ecology at N.C. State University, to speak at a panel discussion on the threats to the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake.

Water/ sewer systems under NC Dept of Environmental Quality special consent orders

St. Pauls Collection System
St. Pauls Waste Water Treatment Plant
Town of St Pauls, Robeson County
Expires: Dec 29, 2019

Fletcher Academy Waste Water Treatment Plant
Henderson County
Expires: Feb 1, 2020

Pilot Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant
City of Kings Mountain, Cleveland County
Expires: Aug 31, 2020

Edenton Town Waste Water Treatment Plant
Town of Edenton, Chowan County
Expires: Feb 1, 2022

Valhalla Waste Treatment Plant
Chowan County
Expires: Sept 1, 2020

Carolina Village Waste Water Treatment Plant
Carolina Village, Currituck County
Expires: July 1, 2019

Moyock Waste Water Treatment Plant
Currituck County
Expires: Nov 1, 2020

Maysville Waste Water Treatment Plant
Town of Maysville, Jones County
Expires: July 1, 2020

Holiday Island Waste Water Treatment Plant
Minzes Creek Sanitary Sewer District, Perquimins County
Expires: March 1, 2019

Roper Waste Water Treatment Plant
Town of Roper, Washington County
Expires: Nov 1, 2019

Pikeville Waste Water Treatment Plant
Town of Pikeville, Wayne County
Expires: June 1, 2020

Information source: NC DEQ

Burkholder didn’t hold back.

“High Rock Lake is receiving a lot of pollution,” Burkholder told her audience of about 50 at Wake Forest University. “High Rock Lake has a sewage signature.”

Portions of the lake, along with the Yadkin River and several of the streams and creeks that feed it, remain on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waterbodies. Chlorophyll and fecal coliform, signatures of sewage pollution, were among the main contributors. The list contains sections of more than 1,300 waterbodies in the state.

By November of 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center had filed suit against Thomasville on Yadkin Riverkeeper’s behalf for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

The two sides reached a settlement the following year, with Thomasville agreeing in a consent order to fix the problems and substantially reduce the  sewer overflows.

The order has resulted in $7.8 million being spent on four sewer construction projects  to date, said Morgan Huffman, Thomasville’s public services director. The city still has three major sewer projects remaining, the last of which should be completed in 2021. Those projects are projected to cost nearly $11 million, Huffman said.

Most of the money is coming from low-interest loans made possible through the DEQ’s Division of Water Infrastructure, Huffman said. That means much higher water and sewer rates for residents. Huffman said the city’s rates are now “probably among the highest in the state.”

Huffman said he doesn’t know why Thomasville waited so long to improve its sewer system.

“I wish I had an answer to that,” he says, laughing heartily. “I’d love to know myself. I honestly can’t answer that question. I frequently refer to it as deferred maintenance.”

He does know that part of the answer lies with limited finances — the Great Recession robbed the city of much of its furniture and manufacturing industries.

He also knows that another part of the answer lies with a lack of political will.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” Huffman said.

Brevard tackles its sewer problems

The picture tells the story in Brevard, a city of fewer than 8,000 people 35 miles southwest of Asheville.

In the picture, water gushes from three holes in a 14-inch force main, a sewer pipe made of ductile iron that for about 70 years had transported sewage under pressure from a pump station to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

David Lutz, Brevard’s utilities director, said the pipe had been in the ground for so long that the sewage had worn a deep groove into it. Leaks were inevitable.

The pipe was perhaps the biggest problem in Brevard’s sewer-collection system, but figures from DEQ show that other sewer lines were also springing frequent leaks.

In Brevard, the failure of a 14-inch force main sewer pipe revealed flaws in the city’s infrastructure. Photo courtesy: City of Brevard

Figures from DEQ show that Brevard experienced 214 sewer overflows from 2002 through 2013. The figures also show DEQ has taken enforcement action against the city for overflows 111 times since 2013.

Overflows typically are caused by broken pipes, heavy rains getting into the system, and debris or grease clogging the lines. In Brevard’s case, excessive rainfall is mostly to blame. Historically, Brevard gets more rain than any other city in the state.

Located at the entrance to Pisgah National Forest near the French Broad River, Brevard is known for tourism, retirement and cultural arts. Its vision statement notes the city’s “environmental consciousness.”

City officials recognized that it was unacceptable to have sewage continually bubbling to the surface every time it rained hard, said David Lutz, Brevard’s utilities director.

In 2011, the Brevard City Council, feeling pressure from DEQ for years, left its annual retreat with a top goal of fixing its aging sewer system.

“We are not afraid to tackle our problems,” Lutz said.

Two years later, the engineering firm CDM Smith of Raleigh completed a flow study that identified the most severe problems in the sewer system. The study helped the city qualify for low-interest state loans.

The first order of business was to replace the crumbling force main, a project that Lutz said included a new pump station and an equalization tank. The work wound up costing the city $13.2 million, he said.

Brevard city councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Mac Morrow and City Manager Jim Fatland in front of the new wastewater treatment plant dedicated in 2017 in Brevard. Photo courtesy: City of Brevard

Lutz and City Manager Jim Fatland said Brevard worked closely with DEQ’s Division of Water Resources and the Division of Water Infrastructure, which they credit with helping them secure the loans.

The DEQ postponed nearly $42,000 worth of fines for sewer overflows, knowing that many more would be inevitable while the work to replace the force main was underway, said Landon Davidson, a regional supervisor in the DEQ’s Asheville office.

Davidson doesn’t give Brevard a free pass. Like many other cities, he said, Brevard deferred sewer repairs and maintenance for years. But he does commend the city for taking action on its own, for being transparent, and for working diligently to fix the problems.

“The moral of the story is you can’t solve a problem unless you are willing to put the problem on the table,” Lutz said.

So far, Fatland said, the problem has cost the city more than $20 million, with up to $5 million more still to come.

Brevard raised water and sewer rates for its 4,100 customers by about $30  a month initially and will continue to raise them 4 percent a year for the foreseeable future, Fatland said.

The progress on Brevard’s sewer system has led to fewer overflows, but the full benefits won’t be realized until more pump stations have been repaired or replaced, Davidson said.

“I know we are getting better,” Lutz said. “We aren’t happy about it at all, but we are making inroads.”

‘Likely unsustainable’

Those self-imposed inroads are a lot more than other cities can say. Records show that DEQ has taken enforcement action against water authorities for sewer overflows 7,630 times since 2013.

Of those, the records show, 275 resulted in fines.

Jim Gregson, deputy director of DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, said the division hates to issue civil penalties, but it’s “our only leverage for these systems that are continually having overflows.”

Replacing the failed force main, plus a new pump station and an equalization tank cost the city of Brevard $13.2 million. In an email to NC Health News, Brevard Public Works head Jim Lutz wrote: “The City of Brevard continues to focus emphasis on protecting our natural resources by annually dedicating $100,000 towards an ongoing Inflow / Infiltration Reduction Program to eliminate rain-attributed sanitary sewer overflows (SSO’s) from broken or improperly attached sewer lines, cleanouts, roof drains, and sump pumps through repair and public education, and additionally through capital improvement projects.” Photo courtesy: City of Brevard

If the problems persist, Gregson said, the penalties get higher.

If that doesn’t work, he said, DEQ forces cities to enter into consent orders “when we get to the point where we don’t see any improvement and don’t see any movement to do anything.”

Twelve water authorities are now under state consent orders to fix their sewer systems, DEQ records show.

The problems are particularly acute for North Carolina’s smaller rural cities, many of which have lost industry and people.

In 1970, more than half of the state’s population lived in rural areas. By 2010, only a third lived there, according to a white paper from the DEQ’s Division of Water Infrastructure.

“This population decrease along with economic shifts can weaken rural water and sewer utilities by reducing revenues and a system’s ability to attract qualified utility professionals,” the white paper says. “These challenges are exacerbated by rising capital costs and operation and maintenance costs.

“As a result, some of the smallest, most economically distressed communities have some of the highest water and sewer rates in the state, and struggle to provide clean drinking water and proper treatment of wastewater. These rates are likely unsustainable for many communities.”

The Division of Water Infrastructure is studying ways to consolidate some of the state’s small water and sewer authorities. According to the white paper, cities with less than 5,000 people have to cover twice the cost of sewer lines as cities with 50,000 people.

Kim Colson, the division’s director, said substantial improvement has been made in the last 15 years to improve sewer systems, but he acknowledges that much of it is in response to “legacy” problems.

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Colson also said grant money for sewer systems is drying up, and there is not nearly enough funding available to cover the estimated $11 billion needed to fix all of the state’s problems.

Mike Hager, an engineer and former state lawmaker from Rutherford County who now works as a lobbyist, agrees that the problems with sewer systems are most acute in rural areas. North Carolina has become a tale of two states, Hager said, the urban areas that have money and rural areas that don’t.

The solution to crumbling sewer systems, Hager believes, does not rest with the legislature but with a branch of government that could oversee a pot of money that would be used to fix and maintain the systems.

Hager, a former Republican House majority leader, said the state should initially identify five cities with the worst problems.

“It has to be a state solution,” he said. “We need to figure out how we develop a pool of money that these counties can then apply to and let somebody sort out the priorities and say. ‘OK these are my top five priorities for this year’ and start clicking away and working on it.”

Hager points to the Cliffside Sanitary Sewer District in his county. The problems have persisted there for more than a decade and have led to sewage contaminating private drinking wells, he said.

“We should have good infrastructure,” Hager said. “We should not have third world country infrastructure.”

Editor Rose Hoban contributed to this report.

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com