5.25 million gallons of wastewater, CFPUA’s largest spill ever, discharged into Cape Fear River

Approximately 5,250,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater is now present in the region's surface waters, which are currently flooding the area as tropical storm conditions continue.

Approximately 5.25 million gallons of partially untreated wastewater spilled into the Cape Fear River near River Road in Wilmington yesterday from Cape Fear Public Utility's Southside Wastewater Plant. (Port City Daily/Johanna Ferebee)
Approximately 5.25 million gallons of partially untreated wastewater spilled into the Cape Fear River near River Road in Wilmington yesterday from Cape Fear Public Utility’s Southside Wastewater Plant. (Port City Daily/Johanna Ferebee)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Cape Fear Public Utility Authority discharged 5.25 million gallons of “partially untreated” wastewater into the Cape Fear River yesterday, its largest spill ever.

The spill occurred sometime early Friday morning and lasted for at least nine hours and twenty minutes until the spill was shut off.

RELATED: Unknown amount of ‘partially treated’ CFPUA wastewater spills into Cape Fear River


As a result, millions of gallons of wastewater were discharged from CFPUA’s Southside Wastewater Treatment plant on River Road, which flows directly into the Cape Fear River.

Timeline of the spill

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) first became aware of the spill at 6:40 a.m. Friday, Peg Hall-Williams, CFPUA’s spokesperson, wrote in an email. The utility sent out a press release about the spill at approximately 2:45 p.m., without citing how many gallons had been released.

While the generators that powered CFPUA’s monitoring meters were out of commission, the utility was unable to measure the amount of wastewater that entered public surface waters, Hall-Williams said. At approximately 1:52 p.m., Hall-Williams updated Port City Daily with the amount: Over five million gallons.

A spill of this magnitude appears to top wastewater spill records in the state, but the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) could not immediately specify how  yesterday’s discharge stacks up.

Still, a DEQ spokesperson said spills at wastewater facilities during extreme weather events are not unusual.

“Treatment facility issues are not unexpected during such extreme weather, especially with record-breaking rainfall,” Bridget Munger, DEQ’s communications director, said.

The public is strongly encouraged to avoid all contact with floodwaters, Munger said. Floodwaters — even without a 5.25 million gallon wastewater spill – -can contain infections, diarrheal diseases, chemical hazards and other health effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Generator failures

The spill was caused by generator failures Hall-Williams wrote in an email. One generator stopped producing power and the other completely shut down, Hall-Williams said, as a result of weather conditions caused by then-Hurricane Florence.

Because of hurricane-force winds, Hall-Williams said CFPUA could not address the sewage bypass until after winds dipped below 50 mph.

Though the  issue has since been corrected, millions of gallons of wastewater are now present in the river, which is currently expected to flood the Cape Fear region as tropical storm conditions continue. According to Hall-Williams, the spill happened during the course of several tidal cycles, meaning the wastewater was carried both upstream and downstream from the River Road facility.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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