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County Stonewalls On Sewage Spill Charges 

County Manger's memo nitpicks over trivia, avoids main issues

Deny, deny deny. That's the strategy county and city officials are using to deal with a Creative Loafing article ("It's a Crapshoot: What You Haven't Been Told About Charlotte's Sewage Spills," April 10) which documented the millions of gallons of raw human sewage spilled by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) into the creeks and streams of this county between 1999 and 2001. Some of those creeks and streams run through subdivisions, backyards and parks, places where children could and likely have come in contact with the water. But what's equally disturbing is that CMU was not fined by NCDENR -- the agency that is supposed to enforce state guidelines governing sewage spills -- for a single one of the 815 spills over three years, all of which were investigated by environmental hygienists with the Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program (MCWQP), the county department directed by the state to contain, control and correct situations involving potential contamination of ground and surface waters.

Instead of working to solve the problem, or even expressing concern about it, elected officials, county bureaucrats and MCWQP employees appear to have chosen to deny that the situation exists. A 10-page memo signed by County Manager Harry Jones, and largely written by Rusty Rozzelle, program manager for water quality with MCWQP, described the CL article as "rife with inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions." County Commission Chairman Parks Helms replied last week by memo to concerned environmentalists who wrote to him about the situation, saying the article "unnecessarily discredit(ed) committed and competent employees and frighten(ed) the citizens of our County."

Even though the memo by Jones claimed that the county "would be seeking a meeting with the editor of the publication," the memo, which was circulated to thousands of city and county employees and concerned environmentalists, the county didn't bother to send it to CL. After we obtained a copy of it through a third party, CL called Jones and attempted to schedule a meeting with him; this meeting was later canceled by county public relations officials who said we would have to meet with the PR and water quality folks before we'd be allowed to meet with Jones. We have rejected the setting of any preconditions to this newspaper meeting with the county's top public servant.

After analyzing the 10-page memo and reviewing our reporting, CL stands by the "It's A Crapshoot" article.

Most of the "corrections" in the Jones memo refer to supposed "inaccuracies" that were not actually in the article, or are twisted versions of what we printed. CL would be more than happy to meet with Jones to discuss the issues involved at a mutually convenient time. In the meantime, we have published the complete text of Jones's memo, and our detailed responses to it, on our website at www.charlotte.creativeloafing.com.

Unfortunately, Jones' memo was primarily a collection of nitpicking over trivial points while completely avoiding discussion of the article's most basic premises, which to date MCWQP and NCDENR have neither denied nor explained. Those include the fact that CMU has never received a fine for the 815 spills; that in some large spill cases, county investigators failed to conduct dissolved oxygen tests that would have proved the spills actually happened; that in cases where these tests were conducted and clearly revealed water quality violations, these cases were still closed at the county level --we assume by the state, it is difficult to tell -- resulting in no fine; and that massive spills had repeatedly gushed from the same tired CMU infrastructure -- in one case 15 spills from a single pump station and the area around it -- yet CMU has yet to be fined.

Although the article questioned the county environmental department's role in all of this, it mainly focused on the state's unwillingness to hold Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities financially responsible for the damage it has done to our environment; the health risk this created for county citizens who weren't directly informed that sewage had leaked into nearby creeks and streams; and the flaws in the enforcement system that allowed massive spills to slip through unpunished. The state, the main culprit fingered in the article, has yet to respond to it - at least as far as CL is aware. (As previously noted, we weren't sent a copy of the county's response, so who knows.)

Creative Loafing, by the way, wasn't the first to report on the state environmental department's apparent unwillingness to fine Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities. In June 2001, The Charlotte Observer published a piece entitled "Paying the price of pollution: 'Little guy' fined for spilling sewage into Catawba, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg isn't." The article documented how a 2.7 million gallon sewage spill into Long Creek from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities pump station resulted in no fine from the state, nor did the 1.2 million gallons spilled by the utility after that. Around the same time, the Riverview Inn, a restaurant, was fined $9,208 after environmental officials found pipes discharging wastewater into the Catawba, the paper reported.

But the daily paper stopped short of reporting how the enforcement system worked or why spill after spill went unpunished by the state. The article intrigued CL staff as much for what it said as what it left unanswered. So CL launched its own seven-month investigation to determine where the enforcement system had broken down, and why. The article was the product of that investigation.

Below is a synopsis of some of the charges made against CL in Jones' and Rozzelle's memo and our response to them. Again, the complete text of the county's response to our article, and our replies to that response, can be seen at www.charlotte.creativeloafing.com.

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