BRUNSWICK COUNTY — County and local leaders are responding to Leland’s surprise announcement proposing the town take over Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer’s reverse osmosis water plant facility after years of protesting the project.
Reactions were mixed: Leland’s proposal to take over H2GO’s long-planned reverse osmosis plant “blindsided” Brunswick County Chairman Frank Williams, who said the county is still analyzing how the proposal will affect the region. Jeff Gerken, H2GO’s Chairman, said he would support the plan but remained unconvinced on the necessity of an aquifer-sourced reverse osmosis (RO) plant. The Town of Belville’s spokesperson called Leland’s announcement “disingenuous” and “the height of hypocrisy.”
The announcement comes as the legal battle over the plant continues.
In late 2017, outgoing H2GO Commissioners transferred the utility to Belville in order to “save the plant.” A lawsuit quickly ensued, with Leland joining the fray. Last month, Judge Charles Henry ruled officials from both H2GO and Belville violated state ethics law while orchestrating the transfer. Belville recently directed its attorneys to appeal a legal battle asserting its right to those assets.
The appeal would likely continue to stall progress on the dormant H2GO reverse osmosis plant, which was officially halted by means of a December 2017 preliminary injunction that followed the legally-contentious transfer. So in turn, Leland opted to present a solution of its own: the town would build and own the RO plant it fought years to block in order to settle the suit.
Leland’s announcement also comes a month before filing for the 2020 election, in which two anti-RO-plant H2O commissioners terms expire.
Thursday afternoon, Belville spokesperson Mike McGill criticized Leland’s proposal.
“They’ve completely reversed course after years of opposition,” he said. “And to boot, they’re going to say, ‘We’re going to build it and we’re going to own it.’ Gee, thanks.”
McGill pointed out Leland’s lightly-staffed utility department and pattern of state wastewater violations between 2016-2017.
“Leland doesn’t have any staff to build and run a water plant. They’re having difficulty now running their own wastewater system.”
In court filings related to the contested transfer, Leland characterized H2GO’s partially-constructed $35 million reverse osmosis plant as “unnecessary and expensive.”
“If you don’t believe in a project, how can you expect us to trust you to build it and own it?” McGill asked Thursday.
Belville’s press release twice references that Leland’s attempts are about “money and power,” a claim it has made repeatedly in the past. (read Belville’s full release below).
After rallying at nearly every H2GO board meeting against the RO plant, Chairman Gerken issued his own release Thursday.
“I am willing to support this compromise because it is a cooperative, regional solution,” Gerken wrote in his statement. “The ultimate decision, of course, will be made by the full board.” He acknowledged he is still unconvinced an aquifer-sourced RO plant should be built locally or is necessary, but said he appreciates “the value of this compromise if Leland is willing to build it.”
“The public does not have to choose between good governance and public confidence in our drinking water. Those concepts have never been in conflict, and they don’t have to be now. The Belville transfer wrongly cast them against each other,” Gerken wrote.
He said Belville’s decision to appeal Judge Henry’s April ruling is costly, unwarranted, and the major stumbling block affecting Leland’s proposed compromise.
Brunswick County, which has largely remained quiet about the ongoing suit, is analyzing impacts the proposed plan would have on its residents. Ann Hardy, the county’s manager, said the county needs more information and analysis before determining impacts to the county’s plans for water treatment and expansion.
The county is currently planning to upgrade its Northwest Water Treatment Plant with an approximately $100 million low-pressure reverse osmosis treatment system of its own, paired with an approximately $47 million expansion, which would roughly double capacity.
H2GO currently purchases all its water from Brunswick County. If the plant moves forward — under Belville or Leland’s watch — the county stands to lose some portion of that revenue stream.
“Staff will be working to determine the potential impact and provide our board with information within the next few weeks,” Hardy wrote in an email Thursday. “The county remains steadfast in our commitment to meeting the future water needs of the citizens in an economical manner.”
Steve Hosmer, a staunch supporter of completing the RO plant as an organizer of The Clean Water Team, said his group finds Leland’s proposal to be “disingenuous and self-serving.”
Because of Belville’s pending appeal, both H2GO and Leland are reliant on Belville’s compliance. The town has not yet announced a special meeting — its next regularly scheduled meeting will be held Monday, May 20, at Belville Town Hall.
H2GO Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the proposed settlement agreement next Tuesday, May 21, at Leland Town Hall. It will be reviewed during a closed session with H2GO’s full board. Following the meeting, H2GO’s Litigation Committee — comprised of just the board’s three anti-RO-plant commissioners — is scheduled to meet.
Read Belville’s response to Leland’s proposed agreement below:
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