BRUNSWICK COUNTY — A project to provide PFAS-free water, separate from county utilities, has been more than a decade in the making. A local water authority announced it will finally be running its $42-million reverse osmosis treatment plant system starting at the beginning of the new year.
H2GO, serving around 40,000 people in northeast Brunswick County, is finalizing construction of an aquifer-sourced reverse osmosis treatment water plant to give its 15,000 customer accounts with a clean and cheaper option for drinking water. Work broke ground in October 2020 and is set to wrap next month.
The water is being sourced from aquifers hundreds of feet underground and free from man-made contaminants, such as PFAS. Though construction of the plant at 146 Gregory Boulevard in Belville costs millions, H2GO customers will not see a rate increase, according to spokesperson Stephanie Blair.
H2GO serves residents and businesses in Leland, Belville and parts of Navassa, as well as customers outside the limits of the incorporated towns. It does not serve the entire county.
The new plant, located on 34 acres in Waterford Business Park, will have a capacity of 6 million gallons per day, double the 3 million gallons the utility’s customers need every day. There are five well sites, with two wells per location. The new water treatment plant will still need to be approved by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality prior to operation.
“Four million gallons per day will be what we get initially certified through the state,” Blair explained. “That’s enough to cover our current demand; more than our current. So, we can get the water to everyone by January.”
One well site will not be in operation at the first of the year and will be certified this coming spring to bring the plant up to 6 MGD to handle growth. Looking to the future, H2GO has identified three well sites for additional water supplies that would expand capacity to 8 MGD.
“The big difference from what others are doing is that it will be aquifer-sourced water,” Blair said. “The water, to date, has been tested and there is no detectable PFAS.”
H2GO is not drawing its water from the Brunswick River, as Brunswick County Public Utilities does. As of September 22, Brunswick County reported 138 parts per trillion of combined PFAS — almost 13 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory for GenX, set to 10 ppt.
H2GO’s 10 wells will instead pull water from Lower Peedee aquifers 320 to 400-feet-deep and from Black Creek, with up to 600-feet-deep wells.
Production rates will range from 600 to 900 gallons per minute of brackish water, which will filter through a reverse osmosis system to remove sediment and naturally occurring substances. The filters will also remove the salt content from the aquifer water.
Once active next year, the new system will undergo a “robust flushing” to remove sediment from the current pipes, to make sure they are clean before providing the new water to customers.
Water from the new system will be tested for PFAS in the next two months to generate a baseline. H2GO will pull samples again in January through April 2023 to ensure the flushing worked on the pipes, currently connected to Brunswick County water.
Also, the reverse osmosis plant will only use sodium hypochlorite in the water treatment process year-round as opposed to chloramines, which are traditionally used. The sodium hypochlorite, or free chlorine, helps remove more biosolids from pipes. Other plants using chloramines are required to do a 45-day flush annually with free chlorine to remove added buildup.
It will cost $1.5 million to operate the plant annually, a cheaper price tag than H2GO’s $5 million payment to purchase water wholesale from the county plant.
Brunswick’s operation is also getting more expensive for customers. The county increased its rate earlier this year by 68% to pay for its low-pressure reverse-osmosis water treatment system at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant. The $122.6-million project — slated for completion in 2024 — is being paid for partially through customers’ bills, at an added $10 to $14 per month.
In January 2022, Brunswick County Public Public Utilities increased its wholesale water rates from $2.89 per 1,000 gallons, up 80% to $5.25 per 1,000 gallons. H2GO chose to not increase rates for its customers, even though its purchasing rates increased and absorbed the difference. Blair noted the company has benefited from new developments popping up and the associated fees paid for hooking into the system.
She said H2GO has been losing $1.75 per 1,000 gallons of all customers’ regular water use for the last 11 months. She estimates the move has cost the company more than $2.5 million to cover the increase to avoid burdening account holders. Once the aquifer-sourced water goes into effect, H2GO will be producing water at a lower cost and does not plan to need to raise rates to recoup its losses.
Customers will also be paying less expensive water bills than are offered by Brunswick County at this time.
How we got here
The road to H2GO’s announcement of a PFAS-free new source for drinking water has been a long and at times, bumpy one. Seven boards over the last decade have swayed between favoring and opposing a reverse osmosis plant, prolonging the opening of the new treatment facility.
In July 2011, H2GO commissioned a water feasibility study to evaluate alternative water supplies to meet future demand. The results revealed sourcing from the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority wasn’t an option, and the H2GO board wanted to no longer rely on the county’s system.
However, consultants found groundwater supplies from the Lower Peedee and Black Creek aquifers — in H2GO’s service area — were an affordable option. Over the next few years, the water authority installed production wells, as well as a R.O. pilot plant for testing.
In 2017, the H2GO board voted 3-1 to approve nearly $30 million in construction work and pipelines; yet later that year, things took a turn.
A new H2GO board was voted in, with the majority of the new members opposing the plant. Prior to the board’s swearing inH2GO sold its $60 million in assets to Belville for safekeeping.
Leland sued the water authority for the move, and in 2018, a judge froze the assets until a legal decision was reached.
After years of litigation, H2GO finally regained possession of its reverse osmosis water plant in August. Though the bulk of the litigation was resolved in 2020, when construction of the plant was allowed to resume, the transfer of legal fees was not finalized until this year.
Following H2GO’s reacquiring its assets from Belville, the Local Government Commission approved H2GO’s bond financing request in September 2020.
In 2021, the Town of Leland and H2GO — competing for the same customers for years — agreed to put their differences aside and merge. H2GO took over Leland’s existing utility lines and hired its water and sewer employees.
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