The master-planned community has gone far over its permitted allotment of sewer connections. And, while it hasn’t yet exceeded the region’s ability to treat sewage, one expert says it’s cutting it close’ — while continuing to grow.
BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Compass Pointe, a master-planned community outside Leland off Highway 74, recently asked the state for permission for what has already been doing for years.
It might sound confusing, but here’s what it means: with 914 active sewer connections, Compass Pointe operated for multiple years beyond its state permitted connection limit of 440 residential units.
Though it nearly doubled its permitted connection limit, the development has remained near, but within its flow limits, according to the permittee. The state’s environmental agency has issued a notice of violation, but it focuses on a technicality, increasing accountability for a significant contributor to a downstream wastewater plant that has had capacity issues.
Early last year, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) discovered the Compass Pointe development was in violation of its permitted connection limits, outlined by its master sewer permit. Compass Pointe had applied to construct an extension of an existing sewage collection system serving the development to accommodate for 103 additional single family units.
In July 2018, the DEQ allowed Brunswick Water Regional Water and Sewer H2GO, the permit holder of the wastewater collection system in the area, to build the extension the developer asked for. The permit included one glaring special condition: no additional connections in excess of the permitted total number of units — 440 — could be constructed.
There were capacity issues downstream, a state spokesperson recently said, so “all permits for this development were held” until they were resolved.
When Compass Pointe applied for a master sewer permit modification in March, its consultant updated the DEQ, stating downstream capacity issues had been resolved. In 2017, H2GO finished constructing a new 10-inch force main, which redirected Compass Pointe’s flows to a different pump station, operated by Brunswick County.
H2GO also upgraded the nearby pump station with higher pumping rates, giving the development room to send its waste downstream, which gets eventually treated at the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant.
H2GO’s director, Bob Walker, submitted the permit modification request on behalf of Compass Pointe, since H2GO holds the permit for the wastewater collection system.
Walker said Compass Pointe averages sending about 90,000 gallons per day (GPD) of wastewater through H2GO’s system. That’s just under the development’s permit, which caps flow at 93,800 GPD.
“Now that all the downstream improvements are done – let’s go ahead and start permitting for all the future flows,” Walker said, of the thinking behind the application. “So we don’t have to keep going to the state every year — take care of everything at once.”
In Walker’s written response to the state violation (issued to H2GO since it holds the collection system permit) he said the connection exceedance did not cause downstream issues. “H2GO was proactive in permitting and constructing improvements to eliminate downstream capacity restrictions to [ensure] adequate infrastructure for future built-out conditions in the Compass Pointe development,” Walker’s May 16 letter states.
Sarah Young, a DEQ spokesperson, said it’s difficult for the state to track active connections for developments of Compass Pointe’s size.
Applications for individual phases are often submitted, with sometimes years before master sewer permits are updated. Before master permits are modified, DEQ relies on “permittees to ensure accurate tracking, which in this case did not happen,” its spokesperson said.
Compass Pointe’s updated master sewer permit, issued May 8, includes a new permit condition. The condition requires H2GO provide “updated, detailed accounting of all flow and connection data with each and every permit application tributary to this system.”
In its modification application, Compass Pointe’s engineering consultant asked the DEQ to continue permit flow through its master permit, rather than through individual phases or sections, to provide “maximum flexibility for sales and marketing.” DEQ obliged — in part, because it will allow the state to keep a closer eye on connections and flow, as part of a form required with master permit modifications.
When asked whether DEQ considers sales and marketing while making environmentally-sound decisions, its spokesperson said: “We strive to be as flexible as possible when reviewing and issuing permits to ensure that development may continue unimpeded, while still following the requirements of the 02T Rules in an effort to protect the environment and public health.”
Dr. Larry Cahoon, a Biology and Marine Biology distinguished professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), reviewed information related to this modification request.
“Overall, this seems to be more of a catch-up approach to managing sewer capacity,” Cahoon wrote in an email.
He described the violation in question — exceeding active connections, while staying below flow limits — as a technicality.
“It’s a technicality in the same sensed as exceeding the speed limit – the reason for speed limits is to prevent ‘accidents’ – the response of ‘no harm, no foul’ will only get you a chuckle from the trooper and a ticket anyway,” Cahoon said.
Connection limits are framed around average use per household. If, for whatever reason, Compass Pointe residents in the development’s 914 active connections began increasing their wastewater usage, it could present a problem for the state. Also, wastewater systems are more stressed in winter months, according to multiple studies Cahoon has published on this effect. Adding in room for winter stresses, Cahoon said the system is cutting it close.
“Once you tease apart the responses and the numbers in them, you see where the potential for actual harm lies,” Cahoon said.
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