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It's A Crapshoot -- What You Haven't Been Told About Charlotte's Sewage Spills 

A feeble enforcement system lets violators go unpunished for millions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into our waters

Over the last three years, millions of gallons of raw, untreated human sewage have been spilled into the waters of Mecklenburg County. Hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of gallons of untreated human waste leaked into creeks and streams that often ran through residential neighborhoods, and ultimately through people's backyards. Yet county, regional and state environmental departments charged with enforcing state water pollution guidelines did little or nothing to punish the polluters or adequately warn the people of this county about the spills.

After the majority of these spills, the polluted water often wasn't even tested by county or state investigators, so no one can know for sure if dangerous levels of pathogens were present. A lot of people, including the EPA and many other experts, say this is a potentially dangerous public health risk. But the same people who don't test the water say it's not a big deal.

A lengthy investigation by Creative Loafing has revealed that the enforcement system which is supposed to protect us from these spills is little more than a dysfunctional bureaucratic mirage that stretches from the county environmental department to state environmental enforcement officials. This bureaucracy has created a system in which more emphasis is placed on how quickly spills are responded to than determining the extent of damage, or finding ways to prevent them.

At the center of it all is yet another government agency: Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) accounted for 99 percent of the volume of raw sewage spilled in Mecklenburg County. This is the agency that sends us our water bills and pumps more than 28.3 billion gallons of wastewater from our toilets to any of 65 sewage pump stations across the county through 3,062 miles of pipelines. And it's the agency that was responsible for about 10 percent of all sewage spills in North Carolina, spilling a whopping 12 million gallons of raw sewage in 815 separate incidents between fiscal years 1999 and 2001, according to North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) statistics provided to CL by NCDENR spokesperson Ernie Seneca.

Despite the size and scope of the spillage, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities did not receive a fine from the state for a single one of those spills. Yet over the period in which the utility's 815 spills took place, close to 2,000 fines -- about $4 million worth -- were levied by the state against other sewage polluters in other North Carolina counties, and occasionally against smaller, private sector polluters in this one.

Over and over again, evidence of massive spills in Mecklenburg County has crossed the desk of state Regional Water Quality Division Supervisor Rex Gleason in the NCDENR Mooresville office. Even when county investigation reports clearly indicated the possible presence of dangerous amounts of pathogenic bacteria in the county's waters, spill cases were closed by staff at either the state regional office or the county level with no fine -- even when the spill directly violated the state's collection system enforcement guidelines.

From your toilet to your backyard

Patrick Carrigan lives on Rittenhouse Circle off Sardis Road North. Carrigan called police in July 1999 because the creek that runs across his backyard -- and winds by or near the homes of over 100 Sardis Woods and Sardis Forest residents -- had turned milky gray and reeked of sewage.

"I noticed the smell for a couple of days before I went down there and saw what it was," said Carrigan. "One of my neighbors thought something had died under his porch. It was horribly filthy."

As soon as he turned off Sardis Road North, the police officer who responded to the call smelled the acrid stench. By the time an environmental hygienist from the county environmental department arrived on the scene, a sewer manhole near a tennis club upstream off Morning Dale Drive had already been overflowing for three days, causing a half-million gallon sewage spill. All night and throughout the next day, CMU crews flushed the stream with water, pushing the "slug" of sewage downstream through the neighborhood.

Worse yet, none of Carrigan's neighbors nor the folks living downstream were personally notified of what dangers lurked in their backyards. That's what makes Carrigan the angriest.

"Kids do play in it," said Carrigan. "I sure do wish they'd prevent that from happening."

The "they" Carrigan wants to protect his neighbors is actually a toothless, multi-tier bureaucracy. Mecklenburg is one of only two counties in the state authorized to do its own spill investigations. Back in 1986, the county signed a memorandum of agreement that said, among other things, that it would collect and document evidence of environmental damage after sewage spills, then forward the information to NCDENR's Mooresville Regional Office, where the spills are supposed to be scored and evaluated to see if the spillers merit a fine or other punishment. In most counties, that's normally done by state environmental investigators, but Mecklenburg was growing, and its environmental department, which is now called the Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program (MCWQP), was large enough to handle the job of investigating spills for the state.

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