New bill would effectively stall controversial Brunswick County water project

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The controversy in Brunswick county pits the rising cost of drinking water against the $30 million cost of a new plant. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
The controversy in Brunswick County pits the rising cost of drinking water against the $30 million cost of a new plant. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY —The reverse osmosis water treatment plant proposed by the H2G0 water and sewer agency would be put on hold by a new bill filed in the General Assembly this week.

HB 587, a bipartisan bill filed by Deb Butler (D) and Frank Iler (R), both representing Brunswick County, would require additional government approval for large capital projects undertaken by “sanitary districts,” the local government agencies charged with providing water and sewer services.

The bill would require any capital project costing more than $10 million to undergo an economic analysis by the Local Government Commission, a division of the Department of State Treasure’s Office responsible for monitoring debt management of counties, cities and towns.

Such an analysis would focus on any proposed project’s impact on the cost of “raw” (untreated) water, as well as any undue economic impact on neighboring sanitary districts.

‘Duplicitous infrastructure’

The stated purpose of the bill is to prevent “duplicitous infrastructure” from being constructed. According to Bob Walker, executive director of H2GO (the Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer agency), derailing the agency’s proposed $30 million reverse osmosis plant is the goal of bill.

“I think it’s clear the purpose of this bill was to target the RO [reverse osmosis] project,” Walker said. “We’ve been looking at this project for almost six years. We’ve vetted it environmentally and economically. I don’t think a new study will provide any revelations. All this will do is add another layer of bureaucracy – unnecessary bureaucracy – to a project that’s going to benefit people throughout Brunswick County.”

The reverse osmosis plant proposed by H2GO would address concerns over rising water prices and growing demand, according to Walker.

H2GO purchases “finished” water from Brunswick County Public Utilities, the county water service that in turn purchases “raw” water from the Lower Cape Fear Water & Sewer Authority.

H2G0 has cited increase costs from these “upstream” providers as a major rationale for seeking self-sufficiency through the building of a water treatment plant. H2GO also cited potential contamination of the Cape Fear River, since a reverse osmosis plant would draw and treat ground water.

Representative Deb Butler (D), of Wilmington.
Representative Deb Butler (D), of Wilmington.

Representative Butler also said the proposed plant was at the heart of the bill.

“The bill does concern any duplicate expenditures, especially when they’re very costly, but the H2GO reverse osmosis plant is how this issue came to my attention,” Butler said.

Butler, who represents Brunswick County but lives in New Hanover, said she was coming to the issue with “fresh eyes.”

“No one is wrong or right. And this bill doesn’t preclude the reverse osmosis plant from being built,” Butler said. “I’ve spoken with the cities of Leland and Belville, and Ann Hardy, the Brunswick County manager. I’ve spoken with the H2GO board. I do think the rush to get some ground breaking done before the next election (in November) is concerning. What this bill does is force things to slow down so we can consider the impact of projects like this before we spend $30 million dollars to serve 10,000 people.”

Two of H2G0’s five elected board members have protested the proposed treatment plant. Jeff Gerken and Trudy Trombley, who both campaigned against the long-planned project, have questioned the necessity of the plant at recent board meetings.

At the March 21 meeting, the board voted 3-2 over objections from Gerken and Trombley to purchase two $20,000 parcels of land for potential construction; the board also out-voted Gerken and Trombley to accept bids on equipment for the plant by April 18.

It was not immediately clear how long the economic analysis of the H2GO project would take if the bill passes.