BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Two public wastewater treatment plants serving northeastern Brunswick County are so maxed out of treatment capacity, utilities turned to a pump-and-haul arrangement to divert excess flow to a southwestern plant with room to handle it. The operation created chaos for school pick-ups and drop-offs at Town Creek Middle and Elementary Schools.
In recent months, tanker trucks made 40 to 50 daily trips to a pump station located at Town Creek Park. Eighteen-wheelers hauling thousands of gallons of sewage would back into one section of a four-point roundabout — the only way to access the schools — to unload, blocking parents attempting to pick up or drop off students.
“Those 18 wheelers were operating numerous trucks all day long,” Daniel Seamans, Brunswick County Schools spokesperson, explained in an email. “When they go to back up to do their work, it’s a big rig, a bit slow in process, and can tie up traffic.”
Five or six trucks would run daily, each carrying about 6,000 gallons of sewage, making seven to eight 10-mile trips from Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer Authority H2GO’s Belville plant to the Town Creek pump station. In February, the operation redirected nearly 6 million gallons of wastewater. Even with this diversion framework in place, Brunswick County’s Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant still treated 108% of its permitted capacity, resulting in a state environmental violation.
“It got kinda sporty down there,” Bob Walker, H2GO’s executive director, said of the experience at Town Creek. Parents would try to drive around the trucks to reach their kids; H2GO eventually made signs to help with traffic control. “I know it was a hassle for them,” he said.
Between June 2020 and March 2021, the pump-and-haul operation cost H2GO $1.5 million in contract fees — not including its own overtime costs, which Walker said the district hasn’t begun to quantify. SR&R Environmental has diverted at least 23 million gallons in total from H2GO’s plant to the Town Creek pump station, billing $0.055 per gallon and more for overtime or after-hours work.
“There were times we were running all night long,” Walker said.
Barred from expanding
Over the last decade, Brunswick was the state’s fastest-growing county, adding 29% and 35,000 people to its population base. During this timeframe, an independent sewer plant serving the hotbed of this growth wasn’t allowed to expand.
“If the county wanted to prevent us from expanding our Belville plant 10 to 12 years ago, then they should have been proactive in making sure they had adequate capacity for our growth,” Walker said. “They know what kind of growth this county is experiencing; they should have anticipated the need to expand that plant a couple years sooner than it’s happening.”
In March, Brunswick County and H2GO quietly settled a decade-old lawsuit, necessitated not by a change of heart, but by an extreme strain on the northeastern infrastructure equation.
For over a decade, the county barred H2GO’s wastewater treatment plant from expanding beyond its current 400,000 gallons per day treatment capacity, despite a state permit that gave the plant permission to double in capacity. In 2009, H2GO attempted to expand its plant, around the same time the Department of Environmental Quality’s Wilmington office was preparing to issue a moratorium on the county’s Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant for capacity issues. (Curtailed growth onset by the Great Recession alleviated pressure on the system, saving the county from that imminent moratorium.)
The county sued, successfully arguing H2GO violated a 2001 sewer agreement, which stipulated the county provide all sewer treatment and regional participants couldn’t acquire additional capacity without written consent. H2GO appealed the 2010 local ruling but later rescinded it.
Until this spring, the county has been unwilling to allow H2GO to amend the ruling. The county’s position is generally to favor regionalization over multiple utility providers; economies of scale can improve operational efficiencies and may lead to lower user rates.
In March, the parties submitted a consent order, nullifying the 2010 expansion ban. “The consent is based on changed circumstances over the last decade, including the massive population and development growth in the north end of the County and the need for extra treatment capacity as soon as possible,” a county spokesperson explained.
Two plants over 100%
Since 2014, H2GO’s plant has exceeded 80% of its treatment capacity, and in recent years, has neared or exceeded its permitted capacity. In N.C., public sewer systems must follow the 80/90 rule: If a plant treats more than 80% of its permitted capacity for a year, it should have already submitted engineering plans outlining future treatment needs to regulators; once it treats more than 90% of its permitted capacity for a year, all permits to expand should be in hand. Beyond 100%, plants can get cited and/or fined.
In 2016, the county’s plant operated at 76% of its permitted capacity; in 2020, it operated at 93% (this includes five months of H2GO’s pump-and-haul operations). Last year, maximum daily flow reached 125% in June, 127% in July, 148% in September and 147% in November, according to figures provided by the county. The DEQ’s permit for this plant does not include a daily limit.
A DEQ spokesperson noted in a statement regarding the county’s February violation that the plant is “well-designed, using oxidation ditch technology, typically producing a higher quality effluent.”
Meanwhile, H2GO has tacked on five capacity penalties since last year: In August 2020, monthly flows averaged 102%; 105% in October; 107% in September; 110% in November; 105% in December.
In April, DEQ staff told the county and H2GO they wouldn’t issue so-called “zero flow” or “dry permit” requests. These requests would allow a new development to tie into a system with zero flow, only to be amended at a later date with the actual amount needed, so as not to interrupt the permitting and development process. The DEQ has a no-dryline policy in place because in the past, “sewer extension permits tended to not get modified to add the flow and many times not certified, yet put into operation,” DEQ spokesperson Anna Gurney explained in an email.
Dry permits are only allowed as an exception when moratoriums are in place, Gurney explained. Brunswick County was awarded such an exception in August 2019, when grant funding was at risk of being withdrawn from the Brunswick-Columbus County Mid-Atlantic Rail and International Logistics Industrial Park utility project — a high-priority economic development initiative.
Walker and county public utilities director John Nichols have an informal agreement in place for new developments sending flow to the county’s plant; H2GO won’t allow the developments using its collection system to send flow to the county plant until the current expansion is online, but on paper, the permits appear normal.
Though H2GO clearly operated in violation of the 80/90 rule for years, the DEQ hasn’t enforced it because of the court order that barred the utility from expanding. In 2018, the county’s plant operated at 92.3% of its permitted capacity before all permits were secured for a planned expansion, resulting in a new line extension moratorium for violating the rule.
County officials largely blamed the moratorium on excess inflow and infiltration (I&I), the process by which runoff and groundwater seeps into collection systems and inflates flows. To date, peak flows continue to coincide with wet periods. I&I is normal for all sewer providers; however, excess I&I is a sign of a low-performing system. Officials pointed to Navassa as a main contributor to I&I; after last year’s Navassa-county utility merger, the county was granted at least $2.8 million to upgrade the wastewater system. In January, H2GO told regulators it identified and removed 80,000 gallons per day worth of I&I sources.
Regulators lifted the county’s moratorium after three months in Sept. 2019, allowing new permitted flow to the plant while it continued to work toward expansion.
Though both plants are capable of operating beyond their permitted treatment capacity, exceeding an engineer’s design can put the environment and human health at risk, increasing the likelihood of sewer spills or under-treated wastewater pouring into the river from an overburdened plant. At the time, the county told regulators the exceedances did not cause environmental damage.
Both plants are connected by a valve, by which H2GO’s excess flows are redirected to the county’s plant to be treated. Last June, the county abruptly shut that valve off.
‘A catastrophic failure was imminent’
On June 23, 2020, flows were averaging 101% at the county plant. Rainfall was in the forecast. One week was left in the month.
Under the direction of county commissioners, Nichols called Walker around 10 a.m. and told him he was shutting the H2GO-county plant valve. Later that day, Nichols put the decision in writing, telling H2GO cohorts in an email the district’s excessive flows could trigger a building permit moratorium that would impact all parties that use the system.
“We have urged you on many occasions to take action to limit excessive wastewater flows into the Northeast [Wastewater Treatment Plant] system,” Nichols wrote.
The valve remained shut on multiple occasions over a three-day period. H2GO’s plant was simultaneously running at or beyond 100%. With little warning, the plant suddenly had no legal means of handling incoming flows.
“We had two or three options,” Walker explained. “One was, just run as much water through the Belville plant as possible and send partially treated sewage to the river. That really wasn’t an option.”
A second — another non-option — was to allow H2GO’s collection system to back up, causing sewer spills.
The third was to immediately mobilize a pump-and-haul system without a permit.
“We brought in frack tanks to offload excess flow just so we could hold that wastewater until such time that our pump-and-haul could catch up with everything,” Walker said.
In his valve-shutting notice, Nichols offered up the Town Creek pump station, which delivers flow to the county’s West Brunswick Wastewater Treatment Plant — a southwestern plant with adequate capacity. In an email to the DEQ later that evening, Nichols noted, “[W]e neither endorse nor oppose their strategy.”
Responding to a subsequent DEQ violation for pumping and hauling without a permit, H2GO told regulators, “we did the right thing” to protect the environment. H2GO staff called DEQ offices after getting word of the valve throttling, and in a voicemail, told them “a catastrophic failure was imminent,” asked for guidance, but didn’t immediately receive it. Two days after the county shut off the valve, H2GO started pumping and hauling.
Weeks later, the DEQ wrote a joint letter to the county and H2GO, providing the plants with leeway on their permitted capacities. While retaining enforcement discretion, regulators would issue notices of deficiency (written notices with no penalty) for operating up to 105% of treatment capacity and notices of violations (written notices with civil penalties) with the penalty waived for operating between 105% and 110% of permitted capacity. Fines would kick in over 110%.
The DEQ told the utilities “the unique situation of an intersystem transfer” (i.e., the valve) requires the two to commit to working together.
Even with this latitude, the county held firm in its goal to treat at or below 100%. Walker did the math, believing pump-and-haul operations would have only been necessary for one month (February), if the county would have accepted and treated flows at its plant up to 110%, per DEQ’s wiggle room. Instead, the pump-and-haul enterprise continued for 10 months, with the first break last month because of a dry-weather streak.
“Nobody likes to spend a million bucks — a million and a half bucks — on something that wasn’t necessary,” Walker said.
Over the allocation
Billed and allocated about 685,000 gallons per day, H2GO regularly sends near or more than 1 million gallons to the county plant, while other partners send less than their allocation.
“This is acceptable so long as the other participants are not using all their capacity and the system is meeting its permit limits,” a county spokesperson explained in a statement. “However, in the spring  the wastewater flows from H2GO exceeded the other participants’ unused capacity and the excess wastewater flow from H2GO tributary to the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant had to be curtailed.”
According to the county, it’s contractually obligated to provide each participant their specified allocation. Walker believes the contract obligates treatment — regardless of allocation.
“It’s been our contention all along, the county’s contract with us says that they will provide all of our wastewater treatment needs — regardless of whether or not we went over our purchase allocation,” Walker said. “The county’s in charge of providing the treatment.”
Before consolidation, the plant accepted flows from the City of Northwest, the Town of Leland, H2GO, and the Town of Navassa; Northwest and Navassa handed their systems to the county last year; Leland handed its systems to H2GO as part of a joint merger in March.
When Leland was still involved, manager David Hollis wrote in an August 2019 letter the county caused the moratorium by “willfully” failing to implement restrictions on partners that exceeded their allocation. “The county seemed to encourage the practice by stating many times that it was acceptable for entities to use above their purchased allocation as part of the operational practice of managing the treatment facility,” Hollis wrote.
Hollis suggested the county should issue a surcharge, penalty, or moratorium for partners to discourage the practice. In response, former county manager Ann Hardy wrote, “[L]ike you, county staff are seeking solutions for entities that are not paying for the capacity that they use.”
The topic came up last January, during a northeast participants’ regional meeting, when a Leland representative asked Nichols how a future moratorium would impact users who weren’t going over their allocations. Nichols said, so long as flow is available, participants can go over their allocation. When flow isn’t available, that’s a different matter, he explained, according to the minutes. The county has never kept anyone from sending flow, he explained.
Last week, Hollis said he’s satisfied with the participants’ arrangement: “The participants and many circumstances have changed since 2019.”
The county spokesperson provided a copy of policy guidelines for the northeast partnership when asked if it had updated stipulations related to allocation. Formulated in 2018, the guidelines include no mention of penalty or allocation changes but do include a new framework for planning expansions, set to begin when capacity exceeds 70% for three straight months.
A longstanding financial dispute between the county and Navassa (rendered moot by the merger) contributed to the town’s reluctance to sign off on the latest expansion, which the county points to as another factor that held up planning. Under the new framework, expansion planning would take place with or without signed agreements.
Expansion may be delayed, but underway
Expansions are now underway at both plants. With H2GO’s expansion ban lifted, the plant is awaiting the state’s go-ahead to construct an $800,000 buildout, doubling capacity (the utility has had the discharge permit to operate at this capacity for years). Work could wrap up by next month, if the construction approval comes in soon.
Work on doubling the county’s Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant from 2.475 millions of gallons a day (mgd) to 4.975 mgd is nearly three-fourths complete. Expected to wrap up by November, the contractor asked for an additional 100 days due to the pandemic and weather, which Nichols told commissioners last month the county was likely to agree to push back but is still reviewing the request.
If granted, the $41.6 million project’s completion date would move to at least February 2022.
Should the dry streak continue this month, both parties could be in the clear by the time school lets out for the summer.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org