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EPA Checking Into Sewage Spills 

Federal agency wants answers about the state's fining policies

Local and state officials may not yet be willing to acknowledge that accountability for raw sewage spills is a problem in Mecklenburg County, but the EPA and two state legislators are looking for some answers.

Creative Loafing published an April 10 article that documented how large raw sewage spills by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) had run through subdivisions, backyards and parks, places where children could and likely have come in contact with the water. 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 a three-year period, 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.

Mecklenburg County is one of two counties that has been delegated powers to investigate sewage spills. Some 99 percent of the sewage spills in Mecklenburg County are caused by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, which is essentially run by the city.

Local elected officials may not want answers, but EPA officials who were familiar with the CL article say they began looking at whether the state's enforcement system is failing about a month ago.

Trent Rainey, an environmental engineer who works for the EPA's regional chief of enforcement, says the agency is particularly focusing on areas where there have been recurring spills, in particular CMU's Long Creek pump station, from which 15 spills totaling 4.8 million gallons of raw sewage have spilled between 1997 and 2000. In most of these spills, raw sewage flowed down Long Creek, and ultimately ended up in Lake Wylie, yet not a single fine was levied by NCDENR for any of the spills.

"What we are trying to determine now is how good is this program when it is not on paper," said Rainey. "What we are doing is to try to discuss with the state what they have done and what was the basis for some of the decisions they have made. We are trying to understand the process from when they find a sewer overflow to the decision to levy a fine or not."

EPA officials aren't the only ones searching for answers. Despite a barrage of mail from county bureaucrats and County Commission Chairman Parks Helms denying the charges in the CL article, state legislators Connie Wilson and Jim Gulley say they still want answers.

One of the larger sewage spills CL documented, a half-million gallon spill to McAlpine Creek in 1999, ran through a subdivision in Wilson's district.

"It is obvious we have a problem," says Wilson. "I don't know how they can say we don't have a problem."

Wilson says she is seeking answers from officials at the local and state levels, and says she may seek to pass legislation to clean up the system.

Gulley got the memos criticizing the CL article as well. But something puzzled him. He says he remembers a particular type of fish that could always be seen swimming in McAlpine Creek around the time the dogwoods bloom every year. It has been years since he has seen the fish, and he had wondered what might have killed them.

Gulley says he has set up meetings with state environmental officials to seek answers to why the sewage spills weren't fined, and whether more could be done to prevent the pollution of the creeks with raw sewage. *

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