When Rusty Field moved to Briar Chapel in 2014, he had no idea there was a wastewater treatment plant embedded in the community. Now, he is part of an effort to hold the plant’s operator accountable while companies and the state utility commission navigate a transfer of ownership that could result in the plant expanding its operations.
Briar Chapel, located in Chatham County just north of U.S. Highway 15-501, is a mixed-use development, with a variety of energy-efficient homes connected by 24 miles of walkable greenways. Field is a member of the nascent Stop Chatham North Coalition, a group of Briar Chapel residents working to oppose the ownership transfer.
They cite concerns over unpleasant odors, spraying outside permitted spray areas, raw sewage leaks and contamination of waterways as a result of the management by Envirolink, the company that operates the plant.
Odors and ownership
To residents who live near the plant, their backyards separated by a row of trees, the stench of rotten eggs can be inescapable on some days.
Community basketball and pickleball courts sit downhill from the uncovered retention pond, where organic waste from local ducks and geese contributes to the build up of hydrogen sulfide — the source of the odor — in the pond and irrigation systems.
Residents walking on the greenways may catch a whiff of sewage as they pass by the exposed force main pipe, which pumps wastewater toward the plant. Spray heads used by the irrigation system are staggered throughout the neighborhood, placed in front yards and by the sidewalks: on some occasions, residents out to walk their dogs have been inadvertently sprayed.
Residents have also encountered raw sewage in the neighborhood due to malfunctions in the force main pipe, which pumps sewage toward the plant. Since October 2017, Briar Chapel has seen 14 raw sewage overflows.
The plant’s owner, Old North State Water Company, filed applications to the North Carolina Utilities Commission in fall 2019 to transfer ownership of its water assets to Old North State Water Company-Chatham North.
ONSWC acquired the Briar Chapel wastewater treatment plant in 2015. Its other assets include the wastewater treatment plant in Fearrington Village, a community on the other side of the highway, which they acquired in 2017 for $1.
Bill Grantmyre, an attorney for the NCUC Public Staff, which helps consumers resolve disputes with utilities companies, said with the transfer of ownership, the Briar Chapel Treatment Plant will expand its operations and take advantage of the discharge permit available at the Fearrington Village site.
“What they want to do is combine the two systems and have a regional wastewater treatment plant in the Briar Chapel,” Grantmyre said. “They would pump all the collected wastewater from Fearrington Village to the Briar Chapel treatment plant and have it treated there, and then also either spray it on the Briar Chapel reclaimed water spray fields or deposit it into the tributary of Jordan Lake under the (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) discharge permit that’s been issued to Fearrington Utilities that would be transferred to Chatham North.”
Under the NPDES permit, the Fearrington Village facility is allowed to discharge 500,000 gallons per day of treated water into a tributary of Jordan Lake. By acquiring the Fearrington Village assets, ONSWC-Chatham North would be able to utilize the permit to minimize the amount of water sprayed in Briar Chapel and instead discharge it from Fearrington Village by means of a pipeline connecting the two facilities.
“We are concerned that the reason they want this Fearrington facility is that this Fearrington facility has a permit to discharge treated wastewater back into the watershed for (Jordan Lake),” Field said. “Since we drink (Jordan Lake) water, we’re concerned about continuing to increase the nutrient levels going into that Haw River watershed.”
Increased nutrient levels from substances like wastewater in bodies of water can lead to toxic algal blooms. However, Francis DiGiano, UNC professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, said by email the relative amount of nutrients in the discharged wastewater would have little impact in the lake, which holds 15 billion gallons of water.
What comes next?
In a statement to The Daily Tar Heel, Lee Bowman, an officer at Envirolink, said the forecasted growth of Briar Chapel demands an updated water reclamation system. The updated plant would include a system that uses microfilters in the wastewater treatment process.
“Its interconnection with the Fearrington Village water reclamation system will also allow the combined system to be a better steward to the environment by reducing nutrient levels and as well as more efficient operations for the communities,” Bowman said.
In a testimony before the utilities commission, Michael Myers, the president of ONSWC-Chatham North and Envirolink, said measures would be taken to reduce odors, such as filtration screens and covering sewage operations.
A public hearing scheduled for Jan. 22 regarding the transfer of ownership of facilities was canceled by the utilities commission. Grantmyre said the commission Public Staff requested for it to be rescheduled 150 days later, allowing time for Envirolink to resolve its issues and for the concerned residents to gather information needed to make their case.
Field said the residents did not know the extent of the issues until a transition of membership on the Briar Chapel Community Association, which until December had been composed largely of officers of the community’s developer, Newland Real Estate Group. He also said Newland and their contractors are largely to blame for the faulty infrastructure that has contributed to the problems.
“Well, I think combining facilities would be a good idea, and we’re not opposed to a regional wastewater treatment plant to support development in this area,” Field said. “What we’re opposed to is leaving it in the middle of the neighborhood. I think there are probably locations in other parts of Briar Chapel. I think it needs to be closer to 15-501.”
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