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Monday, May 27, 2024

CFPUA: Fecal bacteria level high in Burnt Mill Creek, no observable ecological damage or odor

Burnt Mill Creek at Shirley Road, where 72,000 gallons of sewage spilled into waterway, which ultimately leads to the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Friends of Burnt Mill Creek)
Burnt Mill Creek at Shirley Road, where 72,000 gallons of sewage spilled into waterway, which ultimately leads to the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Friends of Burnt Mill Creek)

WILMINGTON—Levels of fecal bacteria are high in Burnt Mill Creek after a spill sent 72,000 gallons of sewage into the waterway. However, CFPUA inspections found no ecological damage, dead fish, or odors in the area.

According to the CFPUA, a power malfunction on Monday night triggered the spill near Shirley Road, between Oakdale Cemetary and North 23rd Street. After restoring power to the sewer and cleaning up the spill, CFPUA sent technicians to take water samples.

CFPUA tested the water for fecal coliform bacteria, a broad category related to fecal pollution in water. Coliform testing is often used alongside specific tests for E. coli and other bacteria associated with human waste as a benchmark for water quality, measured in “most probable number” or the number of bacteria colonies per 100 milliliters of sampled water.

According to the CFPUA, the average level of fecal coliform bacteria in Burnt Mill Creek is 1,337 MPN/100ml.

Water samples from the point of the spill, upstream at Chesnut Street near Flytrap Downs, and downstream at Archie Blue Park in the Love Grove neighborhood. Burnt Mill Creek flows north from Wallace Park and joins Smith Creek before entering the Northeast Cape Fear River and ultimately the Cape Fear River.

Samples were taken Tuesday morning:

  • Downstream samples, Archie Blue Park — 46,110 MPN/100mL
  • Spill site samples, Shirley Road — 57,940 MPN/100mL
  • Upstream samples, Chesnut Street — 5,290 MPN/100mLL

No odor was reported at any of the sample sites. Downstream water was described as cloudy. According to CFPUA spokesperson Peg Hall Williams, no dead fish or other ecological damage was noted. CFPUA continues to test the water in the area until it returns to the average level.

It’s worth noting that Burnt Mill Creek’s average bacteria level is seven times higher than state and federal guidelines for recreational waters — even when there has not been a recent spill.

Fecal bacteria levels are already too high for recreation

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality uses 200 colonies per 100 mL as the safety standard for recreational waters. In 1986, the EPA shifted from testing fecal coliform bacteria to specific levels of E. coli and enterococci bacteria. However, prior to that, the EPA’s standard for fresh and marine water was 200 colonies of fecal coliform per 100 mL.

According to Connie Brower from DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, although Burnt Mill Creek’s fecal bacteria level is very high, it’s not uncommon. Brower said the main factor behind the high level is wildlife and, more than that, pets that use the water and the surrounding areas as a bathroom.

“It’s not surprising, no. It’s certainly not loved, but those numbers aren’t surprising — it’s a natural ecosystem,” Brower said. “But people can certainly help control those numbers somewhat by picking up after their dogs.”

Brower said people should avoid recreational activities in the water as long as the average levels stay high, especially the elderly, young children, and those with compromised immune systems.

On the map: CFPUA sample sites following the Burnt Mill Creek spill

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Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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