County’s wastewater study group, Chatham commissioners remain at loggerheads

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PITTSBORO — On the surface, the Northeast Chatham Wastewater Study Commission delivered a status report to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners during the board’s work session at the historic Courthouse in Pittsboro on Monday. The study group — appointed by county commissioners back in November — was tasked with studying future growth and wastewater treatment options in the northeastern part of the county.

Just below the surface, however, tensions simmered Monday afternoon between the three co-chairpersons of the study group and commissioners as the PowerPoint presentation unfolded.

Board Chairperson Karen Howard even openly questioned the validity of the information outlined in the study commission’s report.

“I would like to see some of those sources that you guys used,” Howard stated. “I’m struggling with just accepting the narrative without any sort of data behind it … I feel like there’s a gap in the information there for me.”

Howard was referring to a statement by the study commission that northeast Chatham’s wastewater infrastructure needs could possibly double or even triple over the next 30 years, and the county’s current strategy for managing wastewater in the area is not sustainable.

Study commission co-chair Liz Rolison stated the 14 package wastewater treatment plants currently operating in northeast Chatham County are handling roughly 1 million gallons of raw sewage per day, but that capacity could multiply by a factor of two or three over the next 30 years.

“We didn’t do an engineering analysis,” Rolison stated. “We took the land availability information that [County Planning Director] Jason Sullivan had provided us. We assumed that the parcels of land that are available that are between 50 and 100 acres — assumed 50% of that got developed and the parcels of land that were over 100 acres, 50% of that got developed, and that got us up close to the 4 million gallons per day. We backed off that and came back with the 2 to 3 million [gallons per day estimate].”

Rolison said the study group also utilized current population growth statistics in Chatham County to project future needs for the county’s wastewater infrastructure.

“If we were to continue with the current strategy, we could see a doubling, maybe even a tripling of the number of package plants and with the kind of problems we’re already seeing fairly early in the life of these systems, that’s only going to multiply,” Rolison added.

Rolison said the expansion of the existing system to meet demand would only exacerbate an already challenging situation. She pointed out that of the 14 wastewater package plants currently operating in northeast Chatham, three systems are regularly not meeting nutrient requirements for discharge, three systems are at or near capacity, three systems are approaching end of life status and one system has been responsible for 35 sewage spills into nearby waterways.

Rolison said the private package wastewater plants in Northeast Chatham regularly receive frequent NOV’s, or notices of violation — letters sent to responsible parties giving notice of noncompliance with environmental laws — from the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality. The reason for the frequent citations is the fact the wastewater package systems were simply not designed for current nutrient requirements for discharge.

Study group co-chairperson Scott Peck responded to Howard’s question with a declarative statement that underscored the environmental impact of maintaining the status quo approach to wastewater treatment in northeast Chatham County.

“Everyday we’re taking a million gallons [of water] or more out of Jordan Lake and we’re not putting it back, because we aren’t treating the wastewater to a point where it can be responsibly placed back into it,” Peck said. “That is one aspect of not being sustainable. To do nothing today restricts opportunities in the future.”

The study group presented county commissioners with a list of potential solutions, including interim measures and long-term solutions. Potential interim measures included managed decentralized wastewater systems with oversight, and agricultural use of reclaimed water. Long-term potential solutions included connecting with existing wastewater systems in Pittsboro, Sanford and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority. The final option on the list was the creation of a water and sewer authority for northeast Chatham County.

Study commission co-chairs Peck, Rolison and Perry James agreed the status quo approach of maintaining package wastewater treatment plants in northeast Chatham was simply not a feasible strategy going forward.

The trio advocated a forward-thinking approach of the county thinking 20 to 30 years ahead, and the needs of its citizens in the years to come.

Rolison outlined next steps for the study commission as follows: 1) Work in conjunction with County Manager Dan LaMontagne to gather information and make contacts with other municipalities in an effort to better assess each of the potential solutions; 2) complete a high level assessment of all wastewater solutions; 3) compose a final report of study commission findings for presentation to the board of commissioners next month.

The next meeting of the wastewater study commission is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 21.

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