Tuesday, June 28, 2022

H2GO: A timeline of how reverse osmosis broke up a public utility

Brunswick County Superior Court Judge Thomas Locke hears the case of H2GO. How did we get here? (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Brunswick County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock hears the case of H2GO. How did we get here? (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

Updated as of August 15, 2018. This timeline is organized in ascending order. For most recent updates, scroll to the bottom.

LELAND — 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.

H2GO had long cited increased 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.

The plan was proposed in early 2015, causing some concern in Leland, but was initially approved. However, as the cost became more widely known, more people began to question the need for the plant. The anti-RO plant sentiment began increasing in February.

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017: Board members Jeff Gerken and Trudy Trombley, who had both campaigned against the long-planned project, speak out against it at a meeting of the board (read the meeting minutes).

Tuesday, March 21, 2017: The board votes 3-2, over objections from Gerken and Trombley, to purchase two $20,000 parcels of land for potential construction; the board also out-votes Gerken and Trombley to accept bids on equipment for the plant by April 18.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017: State Representative Deb Butler files a bill that 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 Treasurer’s Office responsible for monitoring debt management of counties, cities and towns. Because the bill specifically targets “sanitary districts,” proponents of reverse osmosis said Butler filed the bill at the behest of anti-RO local officials.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017: H2GO board votes to hire media consultant Mike McGill, President of WaterPIO and former employee of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, in a 3-2 decision. Board members Trombley and Gerken vote against his hiring.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017: Star News makes public an article written by an N.C. State researcher showing the chemical Gen X is in the Cape Fear River, apparently originating at the Chemours Company plant in Fayetteville. Scientists tell the paper the chemical cannot be filtered out with the technology in use. This changes the ongoing debate for and against the plant.

Thursday, June 15, 2017: Citing public opinion against the reverse osmosis plant, Leland Town Council adopts a resolution requesting H2GO temporarily halt a planned reverse osmosis plant until after the Nov. 7 election. H2GO said GenX concerns trump Leland’s cost concerns and said it would move ahead with the groundbreaking.

Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017: Incumbent Ron Jenkins and newcomer Rodney McCoy, both in favor of the reverse osmosis plant, secure the first two seats in the H2GO election. Newcomer and anti-RO candidate Bill Beer earns enough votes to secure the final seat on the board. Incumbent Carl Antos loses his re-election bid by 18 votes. Anti-RO members Trombley and Gerken are both mid-term, having been elected in 2015. The new board, set to be sworn in on Dec. 19, is composed of Jenkins, McCoy, Beer, Trombley and Gerken.

Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017: H2GO Board of Commissioners vote to dissolve H2GO and sell its assets to the town of Belville, where town officials have publicly supported the reverse osmosis plant. The vote, before Beer can be sworn in and tip the balance against the RO plant, is announced as a way to save the $35 million dollar project.

Friday, Dec. 1, 2017: Leland files a temporary restraining order against H2GO, Belville, H2GO chairman William Browning, vice chairman Ron Jenkins and secretary Carl Antos over the “illegal” sale of its assets. The judge grants the restraining order based on “a likelihood of success on the merits” of its case that Leland would suffer “immediate and irreparable harm” if the sale goes through.

Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017: Parties named in the restraining order were served at or around 8 p.m. by Leland Police Officers.

Monday, Dec. 4, 2017: Anti-RO and newly elected commissioner Bill Beer is sworn in at 12:10 a.m. An emergency meeting is then held at H2GO headquarters in Leland at 8 a.m. Board passes a resolution to reverse the sale of its assets to Belville. Places media gag order on all staff other than commissioners. Belville Mayor Mike Allen says the meeting is illegal because, under the conditions of the sale, it took place on Belville’s property. Jenkins and William Browning’s public phone numbers are now out of service. Antos’ wife tells a reporter “they’re not supposed to talk to anybody.” Jenkins, Browning and Antos were not present for the meeting.

Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017: Belville fires back, files a motion to hold Leland, newly-elected Beer, Trombley and Gerken in contempt of court for holding a meeting in violation of the restraining order. Belville says the meeting and resolution passed Monday was illegal since Beer was not supposed to be sworn in until Dec. 19, as posted as part of a meeting, and his swearing in was not reported to the state.

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017: H2GO holds a special meeting in Leland, with Beer acting as a member of the board. Beer, Trombley and Gerken pass a resolution to reiterate media gag order on staff and to hire a different legal counsel. The contract includes a $20,000 retainer fee. Jenkins and McCoy were not present; nor were outgoing members Browning and Antos.

Monday, Dec. 11, 2017: H2GO’s board, with Beer as a member, holds another special meeting in Leland to approve meeting minutes from the Nov. 28 meeting that sold its assets to the town of Belville. Jenkins, Browning and Antos were not present for the meeting.

Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017: Brunswick County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock orders things to remain as they were on Nov. 28. Belville will remain the legal owner of H2GO’s assets, while H2GO will continue to manage the utility in the interim until the transfer of operations is complete and Belville takes over.  Lock’s order, however, is made under the assumption that the matter will further be litigated. He suggests that he would not be the judge on a long court case and suggests the two sides try to work it out before a new judge is appointed.

December 28, 2017: Judge Thomas Lock releases the official preliminary injunction to all parties.

January 3, 2018: Judge Thomas Lock grants Leland’s motion to extend time allocated to answer or respond to his order by 30 days.

January 25, 2018: Leland files its first amended complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging members of H2GO’s outgoing board and Belville violated numerous North Carolina statutes.

February 13, 2018: Leland files a motion requesting the case to be turned over to the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Belville did not consent to the filing.

March 9, 2018: Judge Thomas Lock rules in Leland’s favor; he allowed Leland and H2GO to re-align together against Belville. He also recommended the case be designated as “exceptional” under Rule 2.1 of the General Rules of Practice.

March 21, 2018: North Carolina’s Chief Justice designates the case as “exceptional” under Rule 2.1. The case is reassigned to Superior Court Judge Charles Henry.

June 4, 2018: Belville files a motion to dismiss the case, citing Leland has failed to state a claim to be aligned with H2GO.

July 6, 2018: All parties meet before the new judge, Superior Court Judge Charles Henry, to hear Belville’s motion to dismiss the case. Judge Henry does not issue a ruling.

August 15, 2018: Superior Court Judge Charles Henry dismissed two out of eleven of Leland and H2GO’s claims against Belville and denied Belville’s motion to dismiss.

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