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Mecklenburg sounds off

Mecklenburg County's Response To "It's A Crapshoot" - and Creative Loafing's Rebuttal

April 12, 2002


TO: Harry L. Jones, Sr., County Manager

FROM: Rusty Rozzelle, Water Quality Program Manager

SUBJECT: Response to Creative Loafing Article Entitled, "What You Haven't Been Told About Charlotte's Sewage Spill Program"

Date Published: April 10, 2002

Due to the lengthy nature of the article, this document will respond to the major items that the MCWQP disputes or feels need further clarification.

The items MCWQP would like to clarify include the following:

* Creative Loafing Article:

"After the majority of these spills, the polluted water often wasn't even tested by county or state investigators, so no one can know for sure if dangerous levels of pathogens were present. A lot of people, including the EPA and many other experts, say this is a potentially dangerous public health risk. But the same people who don't test the water say it's not a big deal." Page 24 - Column 1 - Paragraph 2.

MCWQP Response:

When the MCWQP locates a sewer line break or manhole overflow, samples are not always collected when there is visual evidence of sewage in the water.

CL response: For this article, CL only analyzed and referred to spills over 100,000 gallons, as stated in the story. We didn't suggest that MCWQP should run a fecal test after every sewer line break or manhole overflow, which, in any case, would be impossible since the raw sewage spewing from them after a spill doesn't always reach surface waters.

MCWQP Response (cont.):

Sampling is always done when necessary to determine the presence of human waste. If you see the human waste in the creek, there is no reason to run a costly test and spend taxpayer dollars to see if it is there. To identify the extent of water contamination, MCWQP often uses calibrated field instruments that provide a quick and highly effective measure of water quality degradation. In comparison, the fecal coliform test takes a minimum of 24 hours to run in a laboratory and is therefore much less useful at identifying the extent of contamination than an instantaneous field analysis. This field data is certified as accurate by the State and can be used when necessary in any enforcement case. As far as the reference to testing for pathogen levels, the presence of any sewage in a creek is an indication that pathogens may be present.

CL response: The field data from the "quick and effective" field instrument tests can be used in enforcement cases, but there is one problem with it. Decreased dissolved oxygen levels in the water, the main measure of water quality degradation, can be caused by a number of factors besides a sewage spill. Thus, without a fecal test after large spills that run through residential areas, there's no way to know exactly what contributed to the dip in D.O. or, again, how much pathogenic material is in the water. It is also possible to get a D.O. level after a spill that is not in violation of water quality standards even though dangerous amounts of sewage are still in the water. This is why fecal coliform testing is necessary after big spills through well-frequented areas -- in order to document the fact that the spill did damage to surface waters, the extent of the spill, and how long the bacteria remains in the water after the spill, making it unsafe for nearby residents.

Rex Gleason with the state's Mooresville regional office explained this in an interview with CL for the story. He said: "We suggest that they do the testing ??if there is a significant spill. One reason we have them do the testing is so we'd know when the waters returned to normal."

* Creative Loafing Article:

"Even when county investigation reports clearly indicated the possible presence of dangerous amounts of pathogenic bacteria in the county's waters, spill cases were closed by staff at either the state regional office or the county level with no fine - even when the spill directly violated the state's collection system enforcement guidelines." Page 24 - Column 2 - Paragraph 2

MCWQP Response:

The MCWQP has absolutely no authority to levy penalties ...

CL response: There is no assertion in the CL article that MCWQP has such authority. In fact, the article clearly stated that it is not MCWQP's job to levy fines (penalties): "While it is not MCWQP's job to issue violation notices -- that falls to the state -- it is the county department's job to track what happens to their reports and forward them to NCDENR's regional office with a letter or other notice reporting water quality damage and suggesting a fine."

MCWQP Response (cont.):

... or pursue enforcement for violation of state water quality standards or general statutes. Through our Memorandum of Agreement with the state, the MCWQP collects information requested by the state and transfers this information to the Mooresville Regional Office for review. The state then notifies the MCWQP of how to proceed with the case. If a case does not meet the state criteria for enforcement as determined by state officials, they notify the MCWQP that the case can be closed. The MCWQP does not have the authority to make these determinations.

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