Update: After press time, Brunswick County provided Port City Daily with an official letter from the DEQ lifting the moratorium, dated Sept. 27. The letter appears at the bottom of this article.
BRUNSWICK COUNTY — New wastewater can start flowing once again in northern Brunswick County.
After a three-month halt, it appears (at least unofficially) the Department of Environmental Quality is letting up on its moratorium on new line extensions at the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The 2.475 million-gallon-a-day (MGD) treatment plant, which accepts wastewater from Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO, the Town of Leland, the Town of Navassa, and the City of Northwest, was placed on a new line extension moratorium on June 14. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials issued the moratorium based on the plant’s 2018 figures, which showed the plant operated on average at 92% of its permitted capacity.
At the time, the county lacked all of the necessary permits to operate at this capacity, per the state’s 80/90 rule, showing concrete plans to expand. In fact, though plans were already set in motion, the county had zero out of the eight state and federal permits necessary to expand the plant in early 2019. In December 2018, the plant operated at 110% of its permitted monthly treatment capacity, tipping its annual average above the 90% threshold.
DEQ granted the county its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES) — arguably the most vital permit — outfitted for the 2.5 (MGD) expansion on Aug. 23. This month, the county has obtained other key permits, including state stormwater and driveway permissions.
Reconsidering the moratorium
Brunswick County first asked the DEQ to lift its moratorium on July 12. The county’s reasoning includes, but isn’t limited to: record rainfalls last year which exacerbated existing inflow and infiltration issues in the regional collection system; an electrical failure at H2GO’s Chappell Loop Road plant in December 2018 that resulted in diverted flows to the county’s plant; the county’s assertion of a lack of actual environmental harm caused by the its near or over-capacity operations.
On Sept. 16, with all permits in hand, the county’s deputy director of wastewater operations asked the DEQ’s Director of the Division of Water Resources to again consider lifting the moratorium. Director Linda Culpepper responded, letting the county know the state’s Wilmington regional office officials were coordinating on the topic. “No concerns on our end for Brunswick County to process [Fast Track Sewer Extension]s for developer applications,” Culpepper responded.
After the moratorium, the DEQ allowed Brunswick County to process Fast Track Sewer Extension (FTSE) permits as zero flow applications. What this basically meant was developers could submit plans for wastewater infrastructure. Those plans could be approved and carry on with construction as planned but could not send any actual wastewater flow under a zero flow permit (as the name implies).
At the first regional wastewater partnership meeting held after the moratorium on July 17, County Utilities Director John Nichols said the allowance of zero flow permits was good news. He said he was very pleased with it and that it may have a significant impact on developers.
“At this point, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has indicated that it is agreeable to the County submitting FTSE forms in support of sewer extension permits, whether they have flow attached or are zero flow permits,” Brunswick County’s spokesperson provided in a statement Thursday.
“DEQ had already indicated that it would not stop permitting zero flow permits for projects that are adding additional force mains for more operational flexibility but are not adding additional sewer flow,” the spokesperson added.
A DEQ spokesperson could not immediately provide answers to questions asking for clarification on whether there’s any distinction between officially rescinding the moratorium and the recent allowance for flow permits. The department’s answers will be included when they become available.
So far in 2019, the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant is averaging at 80% of its permitted capacity, according to the county’s Sept. 16 request to the state.
Moving ahead, financing
Earlier this month, county commissioners approved plans to seek the Local Government Commission’s approval on $260 in combined revenue bonds to fund various infrastructure projects (and refund old bonds at a lower interest rate). The first set of 2019 $123 bonds could be issued in October include funding for the combined $51.9 million wastewater expansion project.
Bids came in higher than anticipated to expand the plant. According to updated county plans, the project will cost $12.8 million more than estimated (Author’s note: Port City Daily first reported the project came in $8 million over estimates, a conservative figure based on the lowest submitted bids).
This increase could ruffle H2GO, which is currently considering tentative plans to absorb all of Leland’s existing utilities. If those plans go through, H2GO could be contractually obligated to finance nearly 80% of the total Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion costs (taking on approximately $41.2 million in debt).
Navassa does not plan to finance assigned share of the cost — now $10.6 million — to expand the plant. Regardless, the county plans to bill the town though Navassa has not agreed to sign an interlocal agreement formalizing this financing arrangement. Navassa’s Mayor Eulis Willis asserts his small rural town cannot afford such debt payments and does not agree with its assigned portion of the project cost.
H2GO’s executive director Bob Walker, after being directed by the utility’s Commissioners, wrote a Sept. 23 letter to the county asking for further analysis. This engineering analysis could take anywhere from 60-to-90 additional days, Walker wrote, but could help result in cost reductions. The county doesn’t plan to respond to the letter until it is reviewed by Commissioners at its upcoming meeting, according to the county’s spokesperson.
Barring significant holdups, expansion plans at the plant are anticipated to be completed in December 2021.
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