BRUNSWICK COUNTY — For five years, a wastewater treatment plant operated by Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO has treated over 80% of its permitted capacity, with no plans to expand.
Typically, an operation like this would be in violation of state regulations and, to avoid state action, it would expand. But a 2010 Brunswick County court order caps the plant’s treatment capacity at 400,000 gallons per day (gpd), barring it from doing so.
In 2009, Brunswick County filed a lawsuit against H2GO after the sanitary district took steps to expand the plant. Now that Brunswick County’s northern sewer plant is under a new line extension moratorium, a clause in the court order leaves an open window for H2GO to attempt expanding its plant again.
At this time, though, there are no signs that of that happening.
The 80/90 rule “doesn’t apply” to H2GO’s plant, according to Sarah Young, a Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson.
It’s not clear whether a Brunswick Couty Superior Court Judge’s 2010 court order actually created a legal exemption for the state’s 80/90 rule at H2GO’s plant. However, regulators aren’t enforcing North Carolina Administrative Code (NCAC) rules — outlined in 15A NCAC 02T.0118 — at the Chappell Loop Road site.
The 80/90 rule is about planning ahead: By the time a wastewater treatment plant spends an entire year treating more than an average of 80% of its permitted capacity, the plant should have already submitted an engineering evaluation outlining future treatment needs to regulators. When the plant treats over 90% permitted capacity on average in a year, all permits required to expand should already be in hand.
Violating this rule recently stuck Brunswick County with a new sewer line extension moratorium. In 2018, the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant on Royster Road treated 92% of its permitted capacity. One out of every four days last year, the plant exceeded its permitted capacity. Exceeding design capacity can put the environment and human health at risk, but the county has told regulators the exceedances did not result in any actual damage.
A new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES) required for the plant’s $39.1 million expansion is expected in October, according to Brunswick County Manager Ann Hardy. Construction on a planned 2.5 million gallon-a-day (mgd) expansion to bring the plant to 4.975 mgd is expected to wrap up in December 2021, according to a county presentation last week.
Issued by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on June 14, the moratorium means the county’s Northeast Wastewater Regional Treatment Plant can’t accept new flow until the county obtains all permits and documentation required to expand the plant. State law allows the Director of the Division of Water Resources to allow new extensions on a case-by-case basis — an opportunity the county is attempting to utilize.
Meanwhile, average flows at H2GO’s plant have exceeded 80% since 2014.
Annual performance reports at H2GO’s plant show between May 2016 and May 2017, treatment flows averaged at 94.4%. Flows dipped back into the 80s in 2017 and 2018. As of July, flows are averaging above 90% at the plant.
“I’m at capacity,” Brian Griffith, superintendent of H2GO’s sewer plant, said. “I’m treating what I can treat legally.”
Asked if H2GO was exempt from the 80/90 rule, Griffith said: “I don’t know that we are, formally, I don’t know that we are.”
Maximize H2GO’s plant
On July 12, Brunswick County asked the DEQ to lift the moratorium at its regional plant. The county outlined reasons why the DEQ should continue to allow flow at the plant, including but not limited to: ongoing plans to expand the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant; inflow and infiltration improvements among its regional collection partners (Navassa, Northwest, and Leland all send their flow to the plant); reduced flow in 2019; wet weather in 2018 and dry weather this summer.
The first reason listed in the county’s request cites maximizing flows at H2GO’s wastewater treatment plant. Both plants are connected; when H2GO treats less wastewater, Brunswick County treats more, and vice versa.
Had H2GO treated 100% of its permitted flow in 2018, the county’s letter states, flow at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant would have totaled less than 90% capacity (thus, not triggering the moratorium).
In December 2018, Brunswick’s plant treated 110% of its permitted capacity. This triggered a DEQ violation for exceeding its monthly permitted capacity. During that month, H2GO’s plant treated 65% of its capacity. In an April letter to county utility leaders, H2GO executive director Bob Walker explained during that time frame the plant lost and replaced three pumps. Staff reduced flow at the plant while the pumps were offline to maintain discharge water quality, Walker wrote.
“H2GO has been asked to try to do a better job of operating that plant at its full capacity in times when there are greater amounts of inflow and infiltration,” Jeff Gerken, H2GO’s Chairman, said. “There have been times recently when their inability to produce 400,000 gallons-per-day has resulted in overburdening the county-owned plant.”
In an action plan submitted to the county on June 28 and in turn, submitted to state regulators, Walker said H2GO had increased its total treated flows at its plant in recent months. “H2GO will continue to methodically ramp up operations to consistently operate between 95% and 100% of permitted capacity,” Walker wrote.
When rainfall is heavy and stormwater seeps into the wastewater network, Gerken said H2GO’s ability to maximize its treatment operations can alleviate burdens on the regional system.
“It just makes sense that when we are in a situation where because of heavy rainfall, and therefore, greater inflow and infiltration, it makes sense that everyone should do their best to operate facilities at full capacity so that other facilities are not overburdened,” he said.
Griffith said the plant is working to be a helpful partner considering the county’s recent moratorium.
“I think we’ll always try to be good neighbors to Brunswick County,” Griffith said. “We do need the diversion. We’ll try to accommodate them, but at the same time, we can’t hang ourselves.”
H2GO took over Belville’s failing wastewater treatment plant in 2003, effectively replacing and upgrading the facility on its previous footprint.
“The Belville sewer plant was an old spill bucket,” John Crowder, H2GO’s Chairman between 2007 and 2015, said.
Four million dollars later, H2GO was operating the Chappell Loop Road wastewater treatment facility in concert with Brunswick County’s regional plant located on Royster Road in Navassa. At some point, H2GO obtained an NPDES permit that would have allowed the utility to treat 800,000 gpd, double its current design.
“Initially, we didn’t want to build a 400,000-gallon plant because we knew we’d be behind the ball,” Griffith, the plant’s current superintendent said. After the county’s lawsuit proved a larger plant wasn’t possible, Griffith said, “We figured a 400,000 gallon-per-day updated plant was better than a dilapidated rusty old can that was ready to crumble.”
“When you operate a wastewater treatment plant, you do not give up that NPDES permit,” Crowder said. “That’s kind of like gold.”
H2GO approved plans to build a new plant at the same Chappell Loop Road site in March 2008.
In November 2009, DEQ’s Wilmington Regional office was imminently preparing to place the county’s Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant service area on a sewer moratorium for capacity issues, court filings show. Though the county’s plant — then capable of treating 1.65 millions of gallons of wastewater a day (mgd) — treated 65% of its capacity in 2009, state regulators were watchful of the region’s climbing growth rate. Informal plans to expand the plant had been pursued since 2005, court records show, but no permits were in hand when the suit was filed.
Operational costs at H2GO’s plant increased as the county’s decreased, the order states. Combining resources under the county’s management would help decrease regional costs, the suit states (a position the county continues to hold today).
By early 2009, H2GO had spent $250,000 taking steps to design expansions of its plant to bring the Chappell Loop Road site to a total treatment capacity to 800,000 gpd or 1.6 mgd.
At the same time, an expansion of the county’s Royster Road plant, which included regional partner participation, was also underway. Months after Brunswick County learned of H2GO’s expansion plans, it filed a lawsuit against the utility in March 2009. The county argued that H2GO was in violation of a 2001 Sewer Service Agreement. The agreement includes a stipulation that Brunswick County provide all sewer treatment and that regional participants could not acquire or produce treatment capacity without the county’s written consent.
In the suit, H2GO argued the county wasn’t fulfilling its obligations in the agreement to provide sewer treatment needed so that the state would continue issuing new permits to H2GO. The 2001 Sewer Service Agreement expires in 2041.
The day the 2001 agreement was approved by Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, H2GO presented a separate agreement, according to court filings. This failed alternative asked the county to allow an expansion of the Chappell Loop Road plant.
Superior Court Judge Jack Hooks, Jr. ultimately sided with the county. An August 2010 court order bars H2GO from expanding the plant’s capacity beyond 400,000 gpd. H2GO appealed the order but later rescinded its filing.
Judge Hooks’ order includes a now-relevant caveat: H2GO can request a modification to the 2010 injunction if the county’s plant violates the 80/90 rule.
Possibility (or impossibility) of expansion
Asked whether Brunswick County is open to renegotiating the terms of its 2001 Sewer Service Agreement with H2GO, the county’s manager, Hardy, said the county had not been approached by H2GO to increase its plant’s permitted capacity.
“The county is expanding the [Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant] to provide the capacity needs for the region,” Hardy wrote in an email last month.
In a July 23 presentation, Hardy said the county is staffed and experienced to be the regional provider of sewer treatment (it also holds the same position on water treatment). At the special meeting Commissioners approved a resolution that pledges to provide the lowest possible costs for all its utility customers.
“Economies of scale and lower costs for ratepayers are achieved in the long run when entities combine resources to construct and operate infrastructure projects,” the resolution states.
Utility and government leaders have been meeting in a series of regional meetings this summer to coordinate future plans. With the moratorium, an ongoing lawsuit over the rightful ownership of H2GO’s $60 million assets and a combined $218.5 million in various county utility projects planned, there’s plenty to talk about.
Gerken, H2GO’s Chairman, said expanding the Chappell Loop Road plant is not among topics discussed. “I would not be in favor of doing that as long as the Royster Road plant has the capacity to handle the flow.”
Conversely, Rodney McCoy, an H2GO commissioner, said he thinks it would be a “wonderful idea” to expand the plant. “H2GO has to look after its interests to better serve our people,” McCoy said. “Also if we expand the plant it would take off some of the load off the county’s plant.”
Referencing the NPDES permit that allows for an 800,000 gpd operation, McCoy said he believed an expansion could be achieved in a short time frame. “We already have the permit, which is time-consuming. Everything we have to do is mechanical.”
H2GO’s spokesperson, Tyler Wittkofsky, said no plans are in place to expand. “We don’t have plans for expansion,” he said.
Steve Hosmer, an organizing member of the Clean Water Team critical of H2GO’s current majority board, has been researching the possibility of expanding the plant for months. As a recently-announced candidate vying to be elected to the board, Hosmer is in favor of pursuing expansion opportunities at the plant.
Griffith, H2GO’s plant superintendent, said though no plans are in place, land is available.
“We left [land] for an expansion, but, of course, we’re in a lawsuit with Brunswick County, so it’s not plausible,” Griffith said. “We can’t do anything until it gets overruled by a judge or Brunswick County says we can.”
Crowder, H2GO’s former Chairman, said the system was designed so that it could later be doubled. “We had the system designed so that we could later add on to the system,” Crowder said.
As a personal opinion, Crowder explained the area’s strained history boils down to differences about regionalization. “Overall, the county wants to be the only provider in Brunswick County — water and sewer. It’s called regionalization. I’m not a fan of regionalization. Only when it’s needed. And we do not need regionalization in Brunswick County.”
In April, Southport’s Board of Alderman voted to terminate a 2017 Sewer Service Agreement and 2018 interlocal funding agreement with Brunswick County. After hiring a third-party engineer, the city determined it could build its own wastewater plant at 1 mgd capacity for the same cost it had agreed to pay the county to receive 750,000 gpd in treatment. Though long-term operations for the city would be higher, Southport Manager Bruce Oakley said the city would “own and control our own destiny if we did it ourselves,” according to the State Port Pilot.
Ranking seventh in total land area and first in the number of municipalities (19) out of 100 North Carolina counties, Crowder said the county’s unique characteristics give rise to municipal independence.
“It allows for self-determination with the towns,” he said. “If you sign an agreement with the central system, you lose some of that autonomy. You lose some of that control over your fees, over your rates.”
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