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Up S**t Creek 

CMU fails to notify residents near massive sewage spill

If nearly five million gallons of raw sewage spewed from a manhole 150 feet from their back porch, it stands to reason that most people would want to know about it. But Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) didn't bother to warn the residents of Lansbury Court that 4.75 million gallons of sewage -- nearly four times the total amount it spilled across the entire county in 2002 -- had seeped from a manhole behind homes on Lansbury Court off Johnston Road in South Charlotte, and into McAlpine Creek.The utility also neglected to inform the media that the May 23 spill, which it initially reported to be 1.2 million gallons in size, continued for nearly five days after CMU first reported it on the 23rd. Though crews responded to the spill within 30 minutes on May 23, they quickly realized there was little they could do to stop it, because no blockage to the pipe was found. Despite their inability to contain the spill, CMU waited another seven days before sending out a press release informing the public that the spill had tripled in size.

The full volume of the spill wasn't reported to the media until May 30, seven days after the spill began and two days after it stopped. The spill was one of 13 CMU attributed to excessive rain. State statutes governing notification of residents after a sewer spill require that the public be notified, usually via press releases, of spills over 15,000 gallons.

Neighbors finally learned about the full length and extent of the spill when Creative Loafing interviewed them on June 6. They said that children had played in the 100-foot area where the spill occurred between the manhole and McAlpine Creek in the days after the crews working on the spill finally left.

Last year, after criticism that it kept residents in the dark about sewage spills to neighborhood creeks where children play, CMU unveiled a door hanger program that was supposed to be used to inform residents that a large spill had occurred nearby. At the time, CMU said it would set no guidelines about when it would use the hangers, but would leave it up to CMU utility crews who respond to the spills to decide when to use them.

"That decision will probably depend on how close the spill is to nearby residences," CMU spokesperson Vic Simpson said at the time.

CMU spokesperson Cam Coley said the utility didn't leave door hangers on residents' doors after the massive Lansbury Court spill because "the overflow happened in a wooded area and not where there are houses immediately adjacent to the pipe."

However, the map of the spill location Coley gave to CL showed otherwise. According to CMU's own map, the area where the spill occurred was less than 150 feet from David and Olivia McManus' home on Lansbury Court.

Coley also said neighbors weren't informed of the spill because the sewer overflow was "mainly rainwater" and because flooding conditions quickly washed it downstream (where, by the way, it passed by dozens of other homes).

The McManuses tell a different story. They say that the overflow from the manhole settled in a three-to-four foot deep sludge pool about an acre in size of standing, stagnant water that covers the area between the creek and the manhole.

On June 6, six days after the spill had officially ended, the area around the stagnant pool -- which the McManuses claim stays full year-round -- still reeked sickeningly of sewage, as did the gushy swath of suspiciously colored mud leading up to it.

"It just sits," said Olivia McManus. "It stinks."

Used condoms, one of the telltale signs of a sewage spill (because people often flush them), littered the manhole and the area around it behind the McManus' home. On her way back up to her house, Olivia McManus, who had changed into boots before giving the tour, leaned over to inspect a dead bird left in the spill's wake.

"We've called the city numerous times about the problem back here," said David McManus, who has lived on Lansbury Court for 11 years. He said that in the past when it flooded behind his house, which it does nearly every time it rains, the added pressure would blow the manhole cover skyward, continuously spewing raw sewage several feet in the air.

McManus said he was always afraid that one of the children who live on the street would fall in. Finally, he said, after years of lobbying by a neighbor, the utility bolted it down.

The McManuses aren't the only folks CMU has kept in the dark about sewage spills. Humpy Wheeler and his wife didn't find out about the 2.5 million gallon raw sewage spill that passed by their front yard this winter until they read about it in the paper. The Lowe's Motor Speedway president and his family live on a 37-acre property that fronts on the mouth of Mountain Island Lake cove. The Wheelers were among the dozens of homeowners who live on the shore of Drake Cove who were not notified about the sewage spill to McDowell Creek, which is directly upstream.

At the time, Simpson insisted that CMU wasn't deliberately trying to keep anyone in the dark.

"This door hanger process, it's new," Simpson said after the McDowell spill. "I think we'll learn from this."

What CMU learned isn't clear, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that a raw sewage spill, and the potentially lethal bacteria it carries, has to reach someone's back door before it warrants a warning notice from CMU.

Creative Loafing first raised the issue of sewage spills in Mecklenburg County after an investigation revealed that over 12 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled into the waters of Mecklenburg County between 1999 and 2001 in 815 separate incidents. Many of the larger spills the paper analyzed wound up in creeks and streams in subdivisions or residential areas. Despite the repeat nature of several large spills from the same pump station areas, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) didn't fine the spiller, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, for a single one of these incidents despite levying fines on businesses for much smaller spills. Despite the millions of gallons of raw sewage it has spilled since then, CMU has never received a fine.

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