WILMINGTON — The Beau Rivage Wastewater Treatment Plant has been cited at least 32 times for 81 separate environmental violations since 2015.
Operated by Aqua North Carolina, a private utility company, the plant appears to have turned things around over the past year, getting docked for far fewer citations compared to years past.
The plant treats wastewater generated by about 880 people and 340 properties. Once treated, the effluent gets discharged through an 80-to-100-foot pipe that flows underwater into the Cape Fear River, just south of River Road Park.
Series of violations
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued the company a violation notice for three exceedances that occurred in February: the effluent’s enterococci (bacteria found in human and animal feces) levels were 17 times its permitted limit; its biological oxygen demand (BOD) — the amount of oxygen required to break down organic matter — was two times the plant’s daily permitted maximum and slightly above the monthly permitted average.
The plant’s effluent exceeded its daily enterococci limit in January. Last year, the facility was issued one notice of violation for a February daily and monthly nitrogen exceedance. Available state records show the plant was cited four times for 11 violations in 2019; six times for 17 violations in 2018; six times for 18 violations in 2017; eight times for 17 violations in 2016; and five times for 12 violations in 2015 (DEQ issues notices of violation on a monthly basis, including multiple National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit violations when applicable).
Most often cited for enterococci exceedances, the plant was also frequently penalized for BOD, nitrogen, pH, ammonia, and capacity-related violations.
High nutrient concentrations in wastewater can cause degradation in the receiving body of water, potentially leading to eutrophication (which causes algal blooms), oxygen depletion, and negative impacts on aquatic life, according to DEQ citations.
A DEQ spokesperson said the Beau Rivage violations were related to an aging system operating at or near its capacity limits. “These conditions are not unique to this facility but very common to aging wastewater treatment plants,” the spokesperson wrote in an email Friday.
Beau Rivage developed in the ‘90s when public sewer service hadn’t yet reached the neighborhood. Public sewer lines didn’t make it to the area surrounding the development until around 2000, according to a Cape Fear Public Utility Authority spokesperson.
Shannon Becker, president of Aqua North Carolina, said the issues surrounded the plant’s size prior to its 2018 expansion. “We were stressed at the point where we were growing,” he said. Issues with the plant’s disinfection process, then using just chlorine, prompted the company to undertake frequent sampling at the plant.
The DEQ observed the facility had improved its compliance record in a violation notice for the February 2020 nitrogen issues, noting “some of the initial design and/or construction issues were addressed.”
Over-stressed systems working at or beyond their permitted limits can negatively impact effluent and lead to spills. “We were working feverishly to try to get our hands around that,” Michael Melton, Aqua’s manager of engineering, said.
Aqua North Carolina, a subsidiary of the publicly traded Aqua America, changed its name to Essential Utilities, Inc. in January following a merger. The company runs 700 water systems and 58 wastewater plants in N.C., servicing many private communities. “We’re the largest water and wastewater utility in the state,” Becker said.
First permitted in 1987, Aqua took over operations at the plant in 2003 when it purchased AquaSource (a different company). Outfitted to treat 100,000 gallons per day (gpd), the plant started feeling capacity constraints, and in 2016, began getting cited for exceeding its permitted flow. By 2018, the plant doubled in capacity after expanding over the course of several months, with all new equipment. Flow averaged 123,000 gpd last year, according to a DEQ inspection report conducted in late January 2021. It concluded the plant appeared to be “well maintained and operated.”
Now incorporating UV disinfection treatment technology, in addition to chlorine, Aqua’s director of operations Joe Pearce described it as a “state-of-the-art plant.” “We went through some growing pains,” Pearce said. “The plant there today — it’s not perfect. It’s much better than it was in the past. We are still going for perfection.”
State records show Aqua has paid at least $8,623 in fines for the violations. Regulated by the N.C. Utilities Commission, Becker said the company’s rates are spread out among all its customers. Fines are not covered by customer rates, Becker said. “Aqua eats that,” Pearce said.
Rates are paid individually and directly by customers — not through the homeowner’s association. A representative of the Beau Rivage HOA said it had no control, impact, or knowledge of Aqua’s operations at the plant. As customers of the company, the representative said they expect it to operate within permitted guidelines.
Amanda Berger, Aqua’s director of environmental compliance, explained how one day’s worth of data can skew monthly averages, resulting in two violations. “You could have 29 days of perfection and have one bad day,” she said. “Since the new plant has been online, it’s been operating exceptionally well, with the exception of the filter issue we’re having.”
Aqua identified a manufacturer design issue that the company told DEQ was to blame for a few violations since 2019, with filters developing small holes and lasting much shorter than advertised.
In all, discharging treated effluent that doesn’t meet state standards is a far less environmentally damaging outcome when compared to sewer spills. After Hurricane Florence, CFPUA spilled 5.25 million gallons — its largest spill to date — from its Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant after two generators failed. Partially treated wastewater poured into the Cape Fear River, situated less than 4 miles upstream from the Beau Rivage plant. Over the same timeframe (2015-2021), CFPUA’s southside plant had two citations for a total of three violations, all marked in 2016.
CFPUA’s second-largest spill followed in December 2019, when a ‘70s-era force main corroded, allowing 2.4 million gallons of raw sewage to spill into Smith Creek.
There are millions of bacteria per liter in a spill compared to a couple thousand found in effluent when a plant is treating wastewater, but conditions aren’t perfectly fine-tuned. In context, spills present much greater environmental harm by comparison.
“When we’re discharging, we’re treating. So it is treated. It just may not be treated to that exact permit’s limits,” Berger said. “When you have [a sewer system overflow], that is completely untreated wastewater. From an environmental impact, that’s more detrimental than partially untreated or not meeting a specific permit limit. Not making excuses, I’m just speaking from an overall, larger environmental impact on the Cape Fear River.”
Over the next few years, Pearce expects the plant will improve, performing equal to or better than municipal systems. “We will get very close to 100% compliance,” he said.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org