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Avoiding Smelly Creeks

Citizens get the poop on nearby sewage spills

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There was a time when Mecklenburg County residents were the last to know if there was raw sewage in the creeks and streams in their neighborhoods.Now, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU), when a spill occurs, residents won't have to go further than their front doors to learn about it. CMU will begin notifying county residents of nearby sewage spills by hanging door hangers on their doors. The hangers will contain the date the spill occurred and the address of the site near which it occurred.

Creative Loafing first raised the issue after an investigation earlier this year revealed that over 12 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled into the waters of Mecklenburg County between 1999 and 2001 in 815 separate incidents. When CL plotted many of these spills on maps, it was discovered that some of the county's spills occurred in creeks that wound their way through residential areas, in some cases to creeks that ran across residential backyards.

State statutes governing notification of residents after a sewer spill only require that people be notified of spills over 15,000 gallons. Warning signs may be posted if spills occur to waters designated for swimming, but if the waters aren't considered usable for that purpose, like most of the creeks and streams in Mecklenburg County, than no warning signs are posted after a spill. All that's required is that the spiller publish a legal notice in the newspaper.

About 10 months ago, the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County began placing door hangers on residences near sewage spills to let people know what was going on and notify them of a public meeting scheduled to discuss the spill. The hangers were the result of a campaign by Buncombe County Health Center Director George Bond, who was concerned that folks might not realize the danger of what was floating past their homes.

In Buncombe County, a second set of hangers is placed on residents' doors to let them know when the water is safe again. Mecklenburg's program involves one set of hangers to initially inform people that a spill has occurred or that it occurred and has been cleaned up. The decision about when to use the hangers will be made by the CMU utility crews who respond to the spills, and no guidelines have been put in place to mandate when they must use them. That decision will probably depend on how close the spill is to nearby residences. CMU spokesperson Vic Simpson says the program should be up and running by the end of the month.

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