by Kirk Ross


The fury over coal ash and the threat in 14 separate sites to public waters washed out some of the focus on another major spill in the winter of 2014.

On the evening of Jan. 27, a busted sewer main near a city of Burlington wastewater-treatment plant started sending raw sewage into a tributary of the Haw River. An emergency backup was installed, but it wasn’t enough to handle the flow. Bad weather delayed another, larger backup and when all was said and done an estimated 3.5 million gallons of the stuff flowed into the Haw, which in turn flowed into Jordan Lake.

The legislative postmortem on the spill, held the same day as the first review of the coal-ash debacle, took a hard look at the cause and especially at a delay in public notification authorized by state officials.

In their report, which included an effusive apology, state water-quality officials admitted that they temporarily waived notification requirements, allowing Burlington to hold off sending out a public notice until after the leak was stopped. The delay meant that notice went out roughly three days after the flow started, a full day after state law requires public notification.

Fortunately, legislators and the public were having none of the official excuse that the weather was so bad that no one was on the river. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) told representatives from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources that when a spill happens, there shouldn’t be any delay regardless of the season.

“You want people off that river,” she said

The review of the spill also provided a reminder of how much crumbling infrastructure there is conveying human waste along low-lying corridors adjacent to the state’s rivers and streams.

In the case of Burlington, a rapidly growing city that’s seen a number of spills in the past year, repair crews found the sewer line wasn’t just old, but poorly installed and sitting directly on bedrock.

The January spill and other, smaller spills, are piling on concerns downstream about the impact the state’s political shift has had on the strategy for dealing with Jordan Lake, a water supply for 300,000 people that’s been troubled since it opened in the mid-1980s.

The lake was added to the federal list of impaired waters in 2002, which triggered a more aggressive set of measures to clean it up. That eventually led to a strict set of guidelines known as the Jordan Lake Rules, which covered a massive watershed that stretches from Kernersville to Apex.

In addition to the usual opposition by homebuilders and realtors to any new development rules, the fight over the Jordan Lake Rules also has had a regional aspect, pitting economic interests of the burgeoning Triad against the fast-expanding water needs of the Triangle.

For the past decade, the Triangle seemed to have the upper hand in the battle and most local governments throughout the watershed have been upgrading treatment plants and storm-water infrastructure to prepare for new standards.

But the GOP takeover of the General Assembly in 2010, when the heavily Democratic Triangle delegation lost much of its clout, threw the inevitability of the rules into question. Legislation sponsored by Triad legislators Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) and Sen. Rick Gunn (R-Alamance) suspended the Jordan Lake Rules and called for a new review. And tucked into the budget was unusually specific language calling for a test of new technology to improve water quality in the worst parts of the lake.

Last week a new Jordan Lake committee, heavily weighted with GOP representatives from the Triad, started shaping another look at how to deal with the lake. It’s being led by Gunn and High Point Rep. John Faircloth, two men with connections to the real estate industry.

Meanwhile, state officials have announced they’re ready to ink a deal for the new technology, which turned out to be giant, solar-driven mixers. DENR said they hope have them on the lake by April.

No one is sure if the new technology is going to work, but it’s quite clear that the shift in political clout is going to mean further changes in policy toward the lake. That’s got some folks downstream nervous about changes to the rules being dictated by people who don’t get their water from the lake.

As one Chatham resident noted during the hearing about her neighbors to the north: “We are the recipients of their failures.”

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