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Take The Sewage Challenge

Tell the people what's in the water

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As I write this, my best friend from childhood lies in a hospital bed in critical condition, fighting for her life. Two weeks ago, her family began calling relatives because she was so ill they thought she wouldn't live through the night.

Somehow, maybe because she has three small children to take care of, Michele is fighting her way back, though she's still not out of danger. The cause of all this? A staph infection that entered her body through a tiny cut in her gum that resulted from a routine dental cleaning. Before she could figure out what was wrong with her, the infection spread to her blood and settled in her pelvic bone.

If she lives through her ordeal, she'll have to spend the first month of her recovery hooked to an IV. It will be months before she's strong enough to resume her daily routine as a stay at home mom.

Unfortunately, a dental office isn't the only place you can pick up a staph infection. Staphylococcal bacteria also travels in raw sewage, and though it usually enters the body through the skin, it can also enter through the eyes, hand to mouth contact during eating, drinking or smoking, wiping your face with contaminated hands or gloves, or even by licking splashes of staph-infected water from the skin.

Given the fact that over 12 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled into the waters of Mecklenburg County between 1999 and 2001 in 815 separate incidents, you'd think county commissioners, city council members and county health officials would be concerned about this very real health risk, concerned enough to renovate or upgrade clearly overburdened pump stations, and concerned enough to look into why North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) didn't bother to fine the spiller, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, for a single one of these incidents. You'd think they'd especially want information on the spills that ran through creeks and streams that crossed through parks, subdivisions and backyards in their districts. And you think they'd want to make sure their constituents, particularly those with children, knew when raw sewage was heading for their back yard.

Any website on staph, or the myriad of other diseases that travel in raw sewage, will tell you that you can contract it from a tiny open cut, just as Michele did. But a month ago, when commenting on whether raw sewage was a threat to young children after large sewage spills to creeks or streams, Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director at the county health department, had this to say: "These spills are a concern, but not a major one. It is not a problem to get in and wade in it. An open cut would not be a concern. You have to actually ingest the water to cause a disease."

This is the kind of ignorant attitude that Creative Loafing has been fighting for the last month in a wanna-be world-class county with a Third World attitude toward the danger of raw sewage spills.

It's not like this everywhere. Buncombe County Health Center Director George Bond was concerned that folks might not realize the danger of what was floating past their homes. State statutes governing notification of residents after a sewer spill only require that people be notified of spills over 15,000 gallons. Warning signs along the water 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, then no warning signs are posted after a spill. All that's required is that the spiller publish a legal notice in the newspaper.

For Bond, that wasn't enough. "We should recognize that nobody is going to read it!" Bond wrote to NCDENR in October 2001. "It seems to me that we need to mail out flyers to the residents."

Thanks to Bond's efforts, about six months ago the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County began leaving door hangers at residences near sewage spills to let people know what was going on and notify them of a public meeting scheduled to discuss the spill. While CL is battling to get the Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program staff to perform fecal tests of the water after spills, in Buncombe County, standard operating procedure dictates that environmental technicians "will quickly begin testing" for parameters such as fecal coliform and dissolved oxygen to monitor the health of the water body."

New door hangers are put out once the water is determined to be safe. The practice is used both on spills to lakes, impoundments and streams normally considered to be swimming areas, and those that are not.

So here's a challenge. Let's adopt a similar door-hanger program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hold meetings to let people know what's in their creeks and streams. Include not only the meeting time and date on the door-hanger, but the name and phone number of the county commissioner and city council member that represents the folks in that district or at-large. If CL is wrong, if there's no sewage spill problem in Mecklenburg County, we won't have to use the door-hangers and commissioners' phones won't ring off the hook.

If the state refuses to enforce water regulations, the least the county can do is to let people know what their kids are playing in. *

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