Wake County’s Water Quality Report Card
[This article original appeared in The Raleigh Public Record, a now-defunct, hyperlocal, online news source, in January of 2010.]
A survey of 12 months of Wake County water quality violations reveals who paid the highest fine, who got the most fines and what type of facility garnered the lion’s share of the violations.
Tension is rife these days between Raleigh and Durham about Falls Lake water quality. Raleigh contends “it’s” water source – whose headwaters are located in Durham County – is dirty, getting dirtier and Durham allowed it to get that way. They want faster action and they want Durham to pay for it.
Dirty water is neither cheap nor easy to clean. Raleigh may have to pay $450M to boost its water treatment plant’s cleaning capacity if Falls get dirtier. Durham likely would pay considerably more to clean Falls Lake.
Finger pointing is all very fine, but everybody lives downstream. To determine how well Raleigh treats downstream neighbors drawing drinking water from the Neuse (including Smithfield, Clayton, Kinston and New Bern), RPR reviewed the last 12 months of state and federal water quality violations in Wake County. Because the state needs 60 days to make data available online, the months of November 2008 through October of 2009 were examined. The emphasis was on permit violations, so sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater violations are not included. Here’s what we found, and what we didn’t.
By The Numbers
The highest-fines-accumulated-by-a-single-entity award goes to N.C. State University. They paid a total of $2,598,881.68 to federal and state authorities for three separate incidents: one oil spill and two violations at a groundwater pump and treat system cleaning an old toxic dump, also known as Lot 86.
Holly Springs Waste Water Treatment plant ran a distant second with a total of $17,000 paid to state regulators for three violations at its waste water treatment plant.
The “frequent flier” award led to a four -way tie with three violations each for N.C. State University and WWTPs for Holly Springs, Knightdale Estates Mobile Home Park and Wildwood Green.
Looking at the types of facilities that got violations showed most went to small, privately owned public utilities that often serve a small community, such as a subdivision or a mobile home park. Owners often contract out their waste water treatment plant operations and one of the county’s largest small utility operators is Aqua North. A total of nine violations were noted during the period for facilities run by AquaNorth, who operate 56 WWTPs in NC, giving the company a 16 percent violation rate overall.
According to Alissa Bierma, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, “package plants are tough to manage and an issue that Riverkeepers in general are thinking a lot about because of the way the state determines compliance. In North Carolina, polluters are required to report on themselves and there is no easy way for us to validate the data. North Carolina’s permits are based on weekly or monthly averages, but other states require daily sampling, which is much easier to validate by external sources.”
A small fraction of violations went to individual family home systems, which use spray fields or drip irrigation in places that lack both municipal service and soils suitable for traditional septic fields. Most use a treatment chain involving a septic tank that breaks down waste using bacteria and removes solids, a filter system that collects particulates and then disinfection (either chlorination or UV) before the waste is sprayed or allowed to drip onto the soil. The violations were mostly for using the wrong type of chlorination tablets (hint, the stuff for your pool won’t do) or having UV lights burn out.
What We Did Not Find
It’s worth noting that no cases involved the result of willful negligence or malfeasance. The violations were not the type associated with cost savings or cover-ups of any sort. One other bit of good news was due to Mother Nature. Both drought and flood play can play havoc in terms of concentrating waste or flooding treatment plants.
Problems still exist on the Neuse, though. In September, New Bern saw the largest fish kill this decade, according to estimates from Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Larry Baldwin. But Wake County government has been proactive, says Riverkeeper Bierma. “They moved forward on some very important things this year, by bringing small incorporated areas like Wendell and Rolesville and soon Zebulon up to speed with their stormwater regulations. Federal regulations may soon require these areas to comply with Phase II Stormwater requirements and they are in compliance way ahead of schedule.”
Even the finger pointing seems to be paying off, Bierma notes. “Because of all the Falls Lake issues, Wake and Raleigh residents are becoming better informed about how water quality affects them, and that is a good thing.”
So what’s with these small WWTPS that they appear so often? Wake County appears to mirror the nation, as “smaller systems in particular often lack the financial and technological means to comply with EPA regulations, and accordingly receive the most EPA violations per population served (Shih, Jhih-Shyang; Harrington, Winston; Pizer A., William; Gillingham Kenneth. Economies of Scale in Community Water Systems. American Water Works Association Journal. September 2006).
They differ in size and complexity from larger public utilities, according to Jerry Rimmer, supervisor at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Technical Assistance and Certification Unit. Under North Carolina law, facilities are classified by ‘grades’ that invoke different operating requirements based on a mix of factors, including the treatment processes used (shipping sludge off- site or handling it onsite, for example), the waste’s potential environmental impact (content and treatment residuals) and the condition of the waters that receive the discharge.
“Smaller WWTPS are more vulnerable,” said Rimmer. If equipment malfunctions, small facilities “only have small numbers of blowers and cannot rotate equipment like larger operations. They are also more susceptible to incoming waste upsetting operations. Culprits range from chemicals used to “strip and mop a warehouse floor, household chemicals, medicines and even illegal activity like waste haulers illegally discharging into manhole covers.” Oversight is a factor, too. “It may have looked good at the 11a.m. site visit, but a problem cropped at 3 p.m. and won’t be noticed until the next day’s visit at 11am. Without onsite operators it is tough to catch something when it happens and whatever problem exists may continue until noted.”
Rimmer notes that permitting requirements can be changed. Grade 2s, “do not have 24-hour operators, but if they have a lot of problems, more monitoring may be written into the permit.” Free education and consulting are available through Rimmer’s unit, with staff in six regional offices available for free technical support to wastewater and collection systems.