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Up Their Own Creek

NC finally forces CMU to fix sources of massive spills

For 11 years, David McManus complained to the city about the raw human sewage that spewed from a manhole 150 feet from his back porch every time it rained. Sometimes, he said, the added pressure would blow the manhole cover skyward, continuously spewing sewage several feet in the air. The woods behind his Lansbury Court home in south Charlotte are littered in places with used condoms that are often left behind after the spills. Despite all this, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) did little. This spring, rainy weather finally unleashed a five million gallon sewage mother lode into a 10-foot wide stretch of McAlpine Creek that runs along McManus' backyard.

For years, CMU has been getting away with spills like this as overburdened state regulators let major spills slide. Despite the well-publicized pleas of environmentalists concerned about the situation, the Charlotte City Council has refused to acknowledge that a sewage overflow problem even exists. But now, thanks to an investigation by Mecklenburg County regulators, the city may finally be forced to address the problem.

A July performance evaluation conducted by the Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program (MCWQP) showed that between July 2000 and June 2003, 60 percent of the 21 millions of gallons of raw sewage the utility spilled came from the same handful of locations.

In the past, the city has justified many spills to uncontrollable variables like electricity outages and extreme weather conditions. But the analysis by MCWQP showed a consistent pattern of spills from the same places that can't be explained by freak accidents.

The Lansbury Court manhole was one of the six sites. So was the pump station on Old Dowd Road, the site of six spills into Paw Creek and Lake Wylie totaling 5.4 million gallons since December 2002. Eight spills from manholes in the Andover Rd./Vernon Dr./Scotland Avenue area in less than a year dumped a total of 478,200 gallons of sewage into Briar Creek. Vinetta and Perth Courts were also the sites of seven spills to Briar Creek totaling 85,475 gallons, according to the performance evaluation.

This time, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Division of Water Quality didn't roll over. In July, it sent the city a notice of violation and demanded an explanation. The city's explanation once again blamed the problem on everything from flooding to power outages to the ever-popular people dumping grease down their drains.

"We pretty much told them that was not an adequate response," said Division of Water Quality Staff Environmental Engineer Dee Browder.

Browder says that despite initial denial of the problem, the city now seems willing to work with the state to address the problems. Old Vermillion Drive, the site of 21 spills in three years, was dropped from the list because CMU's plans to improve the site should address problems there, she said.

As for the rest of the sites, Browder said that CMU will be required to make repairs to the system to correct the problem spots, and that state regulators are currently working with the utility to hammer out what improvements are needed, when they will be made and how much they will cost.

"They've got to tell us what they are going to spend everyday of the month until the problem is fixed," said Browder. "Several staff people from here have been attending their meetings and we've been spending a lot of time in their hair about this stuff and looking at their budgets and their thises and their thats. It's our job to get into this and make sure that they are not presenting it in a way that doesn't fit our needs. They are not supposed to have any overflows, period."

As of deadline, CMU had not responded to Creative Loafing's request for comment on this story.

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