In response to legal pressure applied by the Haw River Assembly and Cape Fear River Watch, the City of Burlington agreed on September 2 to take specific steps to evaluate and improve its wastewater collection system.
In April, the two Riverkeeper groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a notice of intent to sue to correct ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act. Under Tuesday’s agreement, the groups agreed to withdraw the threat of legal action. In return, the City committed to (1) clean 20% of its sewer lines over the next three years (doubling the requirement under their collection system permit) and provide annual reports of these maintenance efforts; (2) notify the conservation groups no later than 24 hours after a sewage spill exceeding 10,000 gallons (to ensure prompt public notice when such events occur); (3) evaluate both the education and enforcement aspects of its Fats, Oils, and Grease program and submit a report to the conservation groups; (4) complete, pursuant to a set schedule, priority infrastructure projects designed to limit the likelihood of sewage spills; and (5) make stipulated payments for each day that the City fails to perform obligations under the agreement.
Sewage spills from the Burlington wastewater collection system and its two wastewater treatment plants threaten water quality in the Haw River in and around Burlington and in downstream communities such as Pittsboro, North Carolina. Such spills occurred, on average, more than once a month since 2006, but the North Carolina Department of Environment (DENR) and Natural Resources failed to take responsive action. Indeed, following a 3.5 million gallon spill in January 2014, the state environmental agency encouraged Burlington to delay notification of the public for several days, in violation of a state law requiring public notice within 48 hours. When the State fails to prosecute, the Clean Water Act authorizes citizens to sue to prevent ongoing harm to the environment.
The Haw River Assembly and Cape Fear River Watch stepped in to fill the void caused by DENR’s inaction. Raw sewage spills can pose serious human health risks, degrade water quality, and harm wildlife habitat. The Haw River is part of the Cape Fear River Basin, and it feeds into Jordan Lake, which serves as the drinking water supply for 300,000 North Carolinians and is an important recreational resource for the state.