BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After years of ugly legal proceedings and millions of dollars in legal fees, Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO will restart construction on its halted reverse osmosis (RO) plant project later this month.
The small northern Brunswick County utility, which serves about 20,000 people in the Leland area, has been embroiled in a contentious, expensive, and toxic legal battle that soured relationships and deepened divisions in the region.
“I kept a promise that I made to the people of my town — that they wanted clean, safe water in their pipelines coming into their homes,” Belville mayor Mike Allen said at H2GO’s groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday. That promise, and the actions taken to fulfill that promise, lead to the utility’s contentious lawsuit surrounding the rightful owner of H2GO’s assets. In the end, the Town of Belville returned H2GO’s assets to H2GO and the utility has carried on governing itself.
Construction begins this month
Quoting a line from “Draft Day” he said he used to display on his whiteboard, H2GO Director Bob Walker reflected on the utility’s nearly decade-long effort toward becoming its own water supplier; historically, it has functioned only as a water delivery system, purchasing water treated by Brunswick County.
“Sometimes the correct path is a tortured one,” Walker said at the ceremony. “And I have no doubt we’re on the correct path. And we have been for nine years.” After years of stress related to the utility’s legal entanglements, Walker said Wednesday was the happiest he’d been in a long time.
H2GO is promising no rate increase as a result of the long-planned project. Construction will begin later this month, which will cost nearly $31 million to complete. The Local Government Commission approved H2GO’s 20-year, $42 million bond financing request in early September and H2GO awarded construction contracts two weeks later. H2GO’s spokesperson said while a concrete completion date isn’t yet known, the plant should be running by the end of next year.
In a rare sign of unity, Leland Councilman Bob Campbell attended H2GO’s ceremony. Leland first sued H2GO in 2017 when an outgoing board voted to sell all of its assets to the tiny town of Belville, essentially dissolving the independent utility. After years in court, a judge ruled the transfer was illegal in April 2019, and in May gave Belville and H2GO the go-ahead to continue work on the RO plant that had been stalled by a January 2018 court order.
An appeal Leland filed in response to an appeal Belville filed (but later dropped) remains in limbo. The outcome, regardless of how the court rules, won’t substantively alter current events.
“It’s been a long struggle. We have gotten through it,” Campbell said to the crowd. “We hope from the town’s standpoint — [Walker] said he had a quote on his board, I used to have one too that said ‘It’s better to do more than you promise than promise more than you do.’ I look forward to this being a completed promise, and I wish everybody well and congratulations.”
The legal case was as much about contamination concerns in drinking water as it was about old rivalries and political divisions. As an independent sanitary district, H2GO only answers to the state legislature, leaving surrounding municipalities and the county at odds with its operating powers. More recently, Leland has taken a particular interest in H2GO, first aiming to dismantle it altogether, and later attempting to latch onto the utility in a failed merger during settlement discussions. This proposed partnership would have put the town in a more favorable position to continue accepting voluntary annexation petitions from developers, but it ultimately fell through because of H2GO’s apprehension to allow annexation clauses in the proposed agreement.
Competition in the northern end of Brunswick County has made it a headache for developers to wade through and presents an objectionable financial position for tax and ratepayers; in many areas, Leland and H2GO utility lines duplicate services.
H2GO Commissioner Steve Hosmer said he hopes to pick back up on collaborative discussions with Leland and the county in the future. Relieved at the utility’s progress securing its ability to complete the plant, Hosmer said he’s happy to deliver on a commitment his supporters elected him for. “It’s been a long, strange trip,” he said.
By the end of the month, two (yes, two) reverse osmosis plants will be under construction in northern Brunswick County. Northern county government leaders fought for years over whether H2GO’s plans — which predate the county’s and the water crisis — would lead to redundancy in the region.
But H2GO leaders maintain they can be independent while keeping reasonable rates.
Plus, they assert an alternative source of water is necessary for health, environmental, and emergency supply concerns. H2GO’s plant sources water from the Lower Peedee and the Black Creek aquifers, whereas Brunswick County will continue sourcing its water from the Cape Fear River. Aquifer-based water generally is free from emerging industrial contaminants, which have been found in abundance in the river, with Brunswick County ranking at the top of national per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination lists.
RO technology is capable of removing a majority of PFAS from source waters, local pilot tests show.
In May, Brunswick County awarded its $129 million expansion and treatment upgrade project, with low-pressure reverse osmosis treated water planned to be delivered to its customers by May 2022. This project will substantially increase rates for the county’s wholesale customers (including in Leland, Southport, and other areas) and raise rates for its direct residential customers by a few dollars each bill.
With a shovel in his hand, H2GO Chairman Ron Jenkins said he was proud of the steps he and his colleagues took to save the plant.
“There’s been some ups and downs,” he said. “There’s been some sideways, some crossways, and some whatever you want to call it has taken place along the way. But let me tell you something, it’s important that you stand tall until you reach the end. and we have stood tall.”
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