Update: This article has been updated to include an additional statement from Brunswick County.
BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County Public Utilities inadvertently discharged an estimated 125,000 gallons of untreated wastewater at its Ocean Isle Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant.
It appears the spill is the second in one week in which the county has come close to or missed a 24-hour public reporting requirement timeframe required by state law.
The county’s public notice was shared before 4 p.m. Tuesday, nearly 33 hours after the county first discovered the spill 7 a.m. Monday morning. The spill was caused by the mechanical failure of a gearbox, according to the county’s public notice.
State law requires public utilities to notify the public when its owner or operator has determined that a wastewater spill of 1,000 gallons or more has reached public surface waters within 24 hours, per § 143-215.1C.
Operators should report these spills to the state “as soon as practicable, but no later than 24 hours” after making this determination, according to state law. In other words, 24 hours later is the deadline, not the goal. The Department of Environmental Quality can fine utility operators for failing to meet reporting requirements.
It is not clear exactly when the county made this determination. In a statement, the county explained it was difficult to make the determination because the flow pattern to public surface waters was not immediately obvious.
This week’s spill was an estimated 125,000 gallons of wastewater; a portion of the spill flowed back into the Ocean Isle Beach wastewater treatment lagoon and an unknown amount reached a tributary of Jinnys Branch. Jinnys Branch meets Saucepan Creek before reaching the Intracoastal Waterway.
The spill began 7 p.m. Sunday evening and lasted through Monday morning until it was discovered and corrected, according to the county’s notice.
In a statement, the county explained it was difficult to determine how much wastewater had actually reached the tributary of Jinnys Creek. “Staff had to walk back through woodland to later determine that a portion of the overflow did reach the tributary of Jinny’s Branch. This was more difficult to determine because there was already an obvious flow into the lagoon, the overall saturation of the land investigated, and the overflow into the tributary was described as a small trickle,” the county explained shared via email.
By 2 p.m. Monday, the county alerted DEQ to the spill. “As mentioned above, it was not immediately recognized that the spill had reached surface waters. After further investigation, Public Utilities determined that it was a reportable spill and notification was made,” the county’s spokesperson shared in a statement.
Throughout the day Monday, county staff worked to remediate and sample the site. Staff worked through Tuesday morning to calculate the volume of the spill and prepare the notification, according to the county.
An earlier spill, also possibly reported late
Last week, the county had another wastewater spill in nearby Carolina Shores. That spill was caused when a utility contractor struck a force main near Court 10, Carolina Shores Drive. Untreated wastewater began discharging at approximately 1:25 p.m. May 20.
The county “was alerted by the contractor and had completed the repair” at approximately 4:30 p.m., according to its notice. An estimated 30,000 gallons of untreated wastewater reached a tributary of Persimmon Swamp and a golf course pond near the 7th Fairway of the Carolina Shores golf course.
Twenty-four hours later, the county informed the public about the spill at 4:24 p.m. If the county determined the spill reached surface waters prior to completing repairs on the damaged force main, it also missed the public notification requirement for this event, though not by much.
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