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What? A Sewage Problem?

That's old news

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I've never been one to say "I told you so," but this time I just can't resist. It now appears that the sewage spill problem that Mecklenburg County officially doesn't have -- the one Creative Loafing was publicly vilified by county officials for writing about last year -- is not only real, but getting worse.According to a memo to city council members Friday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) has responded to 220 sewer-pipe spills in six months, about the same number that have occurred over the last two years. Though it didn't seem possible, CMU and the state officials who are supposed to regulate them have managed to achieve new heights of irresponsibility and incompetence.

This time, an official explanation -- of the 2.5 million gallon spill that oozed from the McDowell Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant -- was that it was caused by human error. The large number of sewage spills this year isn't CMU's fault either, you see, because there's been a lot of rain lately. In fact, none of the 815 spills between 1999 and 2001 that totaled 12 million gallons and the hundreds that have happened in 2002 have been CMU's fault. If only people wouldn't pour grease down the drain, if only kids didn't throw balls down the sewer, if only the moon aligned with Mars, etc., etc.

Who do they think they're fooling? Sure, there have been more spills over the last few months, but even during the drought there were more days than not in which a spill report rolled out of CL's fax machine. The spill notices I've received in the last 10 months alone would be enough to wallpaper our newsroom with plenty to spare.

Granted, the county bureaucrats at the Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program (MCWQP) have come a long way since they attacked this newspaper for speaking badly of CMU, the agency they were theoretically supposed to be policing according to an agreement with the state. While I have a hard time believing county water program chief Rusty Rozzelle's claim that no wildlife was killed in last week's spill -- not one dead fish? Not one? -- his department's enthusiasm for documenting sewage spills has improved. Heck, they've even started regularly testing the level of potentially deadly bacteria in the water after spills, which for them is real progress.

But that hasn't stopped the raw sewage from spewing out of manholes, bursting out of pipes and running into creeks in residential areas.

Why is this happening? David Rimer of the MCWQP explained it best in a report, which was written after the 14th spill CMU supposedly wasn't responsible for at the Long Creek pumping station in 1999. "Improvements to the system to prevent future bypasses are urgently needed," Rimer wrote.

Since then, frustrated CMU employees and contractors tell CL, the city in particular has continued to hook new developments up to parts of the system that CMU's own employees tell them are already past their capacity. Why? Because new development and annexation wouldn't be profitable if CMU had to spend the millions it would take to upgrade the system.

The attitude of city and county bureaucrats about this issue has generally been one of denial. They'll tell you they expect spills to happen, and so far haven't seemed particularly concerned when raw sewage, which contains a virtual cornucopia of dangerous and deadly diseases, spills into creeks and streams that wind through residential areas where children play.

They may eventually be forced to change that attitude, though. In response to a suit brought by the Santa Monica Baykeeper, a federal district court judge fined the city of Los Angeles $8 million for violating the Clean Water Act, officially holding it responsible for the 297 sewage spills that occurred there between January and July 2001. Since then, Baykeeper and Riverkeeper organizations across the country have been looking for new opportunities to use that legal precedent.

It shouldn't take legal action to get CMU to clean up its act. The people who run and oversee this agency should at least have had the decency to let all the folks who live along the waters affected by last week's spill know what was floating past their backyards (see story p. ???). Instead, CMU made a mockery of its own door-hanger program, designed to notify residents quickly after a spill, by bypassing many of the homes most affected by it.

The real culprit in all of this is the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR), the state agency that's supposed to be responsible for following through with fines for businesses and municipalities that pollute. Instead, NCDENR has pushed heavy fines on businesses for small and medium-size spills while virtually ignoring CMU's sewage snafus. Given the agency's history, they'll probably let this one slide as well unless they hear from the public.

While NCDENR secretary Bill Ross has never been interested in talking to the media or the public about this situation, the tape on his voicemail is rather long. To leave him a message, call 919-715-4101 and ask to be transferred to his voicemail.

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