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Long Creek Pumping Station: A textbook case

If there's a single piece of evidence that documents the environmental enforcement bureaucracy's laissez-faire approach to sewage spills in Mecklenburg County, it's the nonchalant response to the 14 spills totaling 1.1 million gallons of sewage from and around the Long Creek pumping station between 1997 and 1999. As the number of spills grew, CMU's official explanations grew more and more curious. In May 1998, after the first six spills -- all of which were said to have been caused by either a sewer line or a power line being cut by a utility crew - NCDENR's Rex Gleason wrote a letter to CMU warning the utility that "it will be necessary to immediately cease all illegal discharge activity and undertake corrective actions to eliminate the potential for recurrent illegal spills."

Eight spills took place after that, none of which, CMU officials maintained, were actually the fault of the utility. Of the 14 total spills, five were the result of power lines being cut by unnamed private utility crews, utility managers claimed. Six were supposedly caused by electrical failures at the station, although in all the above instances, the station should have had a working back-up power source. The other two were reported to be the result of failures to previous repairs in the sewer line.

Finally, after the 14th spill, county environmental investigators attempted to initiate enforcement action against CMU. David Rimer of MCWQP wrote up a detailed description of all the spills in February 1999, which was forwarded to the state's Mooresville regional office for final approval of a single fine totaling $691.94 for all 14 spills.

Although the utility had quickly responded after most of the spills, Rimer wrote, "the pumping station and the force main [the large pipe going into and coming out of the pumping station] need to be replaced or significantly upgraded, which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has not vigorously pursued. Improvements to the system to prevent future bypasses are urgently needed."

Ten months later, in December 1999, a response finally came from the Mooresville office of NCDENR. The state had decided not to fine the utility for the Long Creek spills after all. Instead, CMU officials would be required to publish a short public notice about all the spills in a local newspaper. The so-called punishment was an ironic joke, since the state already requires CMU to automatically publish notice in the paper of all sewage spills over 15,000 gallons.

Six months later, in June 2000, the sewage literally hit the fan at Long Creek. A line voltage spike blew a surge protector and over the course of two days, 3.7 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled; about 2.7 million gallons made it into Long Creek and ultimately into Lake Wylie.

MCWQP reports documented a fish kill. Fish die when organic matter present in raw sewage consumes the oxygen in the water. Because MCWQP conducted water and fecal tests in this case, high fecal levels and water quality violations were documented. As much as three days later, fecal levels were still high in the creek and lake. Half a mile downstream, thousands of dead freshwater clams could be seen floating in the water. If ever there were a textbook case made for a spill fine, this was it. Mecklenburg County investigators even drafted a notice of violation/request for enforcement action against CMU and sent it to the state, where it merely awaited the signature of Regional Supervisor for the Division of Water Quality Rex Gleason, the same guy who had issued a stern warning to CMU about Long Creek.

But nothing happened. Three months later, a response to the county finally came in the form of an email from Richard Bridgeman of NCDENR's Mooresville Regional office. According to the MCWQP report, Bridgeman wrote that based on Gleason's answer, "I don't believe an enforcement is in CMU's future."

The case was closed with four final words on the MCWQP report. "No further action required."

CL asked Gleason why he didn't forward the spill to the state offices of NCDENR for a fine. Gleason said that the spill didn't score enough points to warrant a fine even though there had been 14 previous spills at Long Creek. Because the state didn't actually fine CMU for those previous spills (although the county had proposed a fine), Gleason said, there was no official history of repeated spills at the pump station.

Gleason said he classified the 3.7 million gallon spill as an "Act of God" -- which will usually get spillers out of a fine -- because CMU claimed it was caused by a power surge when a line voltage spike blew a surge protector. Given its history, it appears that "God" must have issues with the Long Creek pump station, since the massive spill was the seventh power surge-related spill He caused at the pump between 1997 and 2000. As was the case for the preceding six spills, neither God nor CMU was punished for the spill.

And the "urgently needed" replacement or upgrade of the Long Creek pumping station? CMU has developed a habit of promising the new station would be forthcoming in a matter of months every time the county and state demand an explanation for yet another spill.

In June 1999, after yet another spill from the station, CMU's Superintendent of Wastewater Collection Division, Luis Concha, sent a memo to the state with a project study that said construction on a $21 million replacement station would start in July 2000. In July 2000, CMU Deputy Director Barry Gullet wrote a letter to NCDENR after the 3.7 million gallon sewage spill in which he said an emergency standby pump had been installed until design and replacement of the station, which would now cost $16 million, was complete.

Speaking through a spokesperson, Gullet said two weeks ago that the replacement of the Long Creek Lift Station would likely cost more than $21 million and would be completed in three to four years.

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