RALEIGH — The largest sewage spill in
North Carolina in at least a decade went unreported for about 20 days
until an environmentalist notified federal investigators that millions
of gallons of untreated wastewater had flowed into a tributary that
feeds into a lake popular with boaters and fishermen.
Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a criminal investigation
of the almost 16-million gallon spill, which is believed to have begun
July 16 at High Rock Lake and continued until Aug. 4. In addition, one
employee of the city's wastewater treatment plant has resigned.
just want them to tell us the truth and tell us what their plans are to
help," said Ronnie Lewis, 69, of Eden, who has a house on the lake at
The city initially reported the
spill on Aug. 3, saying 385,000 gallons of untreated wastewater had
been dumped. City officials say they based that estimate on the belief
that the spill had occurred for two days.
estimate had jumped to 15.93 million gallons when the city submitted a
revised estimate to state environmental officials in September. State
records on spills date only to 1998 and show the previous largest spill
was 9 million gallons in December 2002 in Raleigh.
Kelly Craver said the sewage went into a tributary of North Hamby
Creek, which feeds into Abbotts Creek and into the
more-than-15,000-acre High Rock Lake. The lake has hosted the
Bassmasters Classic, most recently in 2007. The cause of the spill was
traced to a collapsed pipe, he said.
But Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean
Naujoks (NOW-yuks) sent a report to the EPA's criminal investigation
division in Charlotte on Aug. 27, saying an employee had told him that
he believed the spill began in mid-July.
The EPA agent in
Charlotte investigating the allegations, Kevin LaPointe, did not return
a a phone call Wednesday from The Associated Press. However, Craver
confirmed the investigation Wednesday.
Craver said a spill was
reported Aug. 3, stopped Aug. 4 and then repaired Aug. 5. The public
services director, Morgan Huffman, calculated the spill at 385,000
gallons based on a leak over those two days, Craver said. Huffman did
not return a phone call Wednesday from the AP.
The EPA ordered
the city to recalculate the amount of the spill based on creating a
baseline over the past four months, Craver said.
16, anything higher than that baseline was considered spilled, he said.
City officials have reviewed plant logs and interviewed employees "and
we can't find the red flag," he said. "There's nothing that says it
happened here. There's some erratic data, but there isn't consistent
data that shows low flow to the plant."
Naujoks' report to the
EPA says an operator in charge at the Thomasville Sewage Treatment
Plant reported a drop in flow around July 13, from an average of 2
million gallons a day to 1.2 million gallons a day. The employee said
this occurred on a rainy day when flow should have increased.
the employee returned from vacation, he again noticed a drop in flow,
according to Naujoks' report. "Based on his estimation, approximately
600,000 to 700,000 gallons a day of raw sewage over the course of 10-12
days entered the receiving stream," Naujoks wrote.
a regional supervisor with the Division of Water Quality, confirmed
that the city used its own data to come up with the new estimate. "As
they looked at that situation, they went back and backtracked and
looked at these differences," he said. "I don't think it popped out at
them the day they found the spill."
The state received the city's
revised spill estimate of 15.93 million gallons earlier this month,
Tedder said. The state originally fined the city about $1,600 and is
reconsidering its penalty in light of the new estimate, he said.
addition, one employee has resigned because he didn't send crews to
check out a report of a sewage smell on July 31, Craver said. The
employee is eligible for retirement after working 32 years with the
city, he said.
Craver said he's confused as to why residents
didn't smell or see sewage. "I find it really strange that we spilled
sewage at the rate of 800,000 gallons a day and nobody saw it, nobody
smelled it and no fish died," he said.
But Naujoks said he got
calls in July from lake residents who said they smelled sewage. "But
it's hard to determine where it's coming from when it's coming in from
miles upstream and it's a lower amount over a longer duration," he said.
As for a fish kill, he said it can take months for algae blooms to grow, deprive the water of oxygen and kill fish.
said the water near his house has been a grayish-green color for more
than a year and that he's smelled sewage over that time, but he didn't
report his observations to anyone.