RALEIGH The largest sewage spill in North Carolina in at least a decade went unreported for about 20 days until an environmentalist notified federal investigators that millions of gallons of untreated wastewater had flowed into a tributary that feeds into a lake popular with boaters and fishermen.
The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a criminal investigation of the almost 16-million gallon spill, which is believed to have begun July 16 at High Rock Lake and continued until Aug. 4. In addition, one employee of the city's wastewater treatment plant has resigned.
"We just want them to tell us the truth and tell us what their plans are to help," said Ronnie Lewis, 69, of Eden, who has a house on the lake at Abbotts Creek.
The city initially reported the spill on Aug. 3, saying 385,000 gallons of untreated wastewater had been dumped. City officials say they based that estimate on the belief that the spill had occurred for two days.
The estimate had jumped to 15.93 million gallons when the city submitted a revised estimate to state environmental officials in September. State records on spills date only to 1998 and show the previous largest spill was 9 million gallons in December 2002 in Raleigh.
City Manager Kelly Craver said the sewage went into a tributary of North Hamby Creek, which feeds into Abbotts Creek and into the more-than-15,000-acre High Rock Lake. The lake has hosted the Bassmasters Classic, most recently in 2007. The cause of the spill was traced to a collapsed pipe, he said.
But Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks (NOW-yuks) sent a report to the EPA's criminal investigation division in Charlotte on Aug. 27, saying an employee had told him that he believed the spill began in mid-July.
The EPA agent in Charlotte investigating the allegations, Kevin LaPointe, did not return a a phone call Wednesday from The Associated Press. However, Craver confirmed the investigation Wednesday.
Craver said a spill was reported Aug. 3, stopped Aug. 4 and then repaired Aug. 5. The public services director, Morgan Huffman, calculated the spill at 385,000 gallons based on a leak over those two days, Craver said. Huffman did not return a phone call Wednesday from the AP.
The EPA ordered the city to recalculate the amount of the spill based on creating a baseline over the past four months, Craver said.
Beginning July 16, anything higher than that baseline was considered spilled, he said. City officials have reviewed plant logs and interviewed employees "and we can't find the red flag," he said. "There's nothing that says it happened here. There's some erratic data, but there isn't consistent data that shows low flow to the plant."
Naujoks' report to the EPA says an operator in charge at the Thomasville Sewage Treatment Plant reported a drop in flow around July 13, from an average of 2 million gallons a day to 1.2 million gallons a day. The employee said this occurred on a rainy day when flow should have increased.
When the employee returned from vacation, he again noticed a drop in flow, according to Naujoks' report. "Based on his estimation, approximately 600,000 to 700,000 gallons a day of raw sewage over the course of 10-12 days entered the receiving stream," Naujoks wrote.
Steve Tedder, a regional supervisor with the Division of Water Quality, confirmed that the city used its own data to come up with the new estimate. "As they looked at that situation, they went back and backtracked and looked at these differences," he said. "I don't think it popped out at them the day they found the spill."
The state received the city's revised spill estimate of 15.93 million gallons earlier this month, Tedder said. The state originally fined the city about $1,600 and is reconsidering its penalty in light of the new estimate, he said.
In addition, one employee has resigned because he didn't send crews to check out a report of a sewage smell on July 31, Craver said. The employee is eligible for retirement after working 32 years with the city, he said.
Craver said he's confused as to why residents didn't smell or see sewage. "I find it really strange that we spilled sewage at the rate of 800,000 gallons a day and nobody saw it, nobody smelled it and no fish died," he said.
But Naujoks said he got calls in July from lake residents who said they smelled sewage. "But it's hard to determine where it's coming from when it's coming in from miles upstream and it's a lower amount over a longer duration," he said.
As for a fish kill, he said it can take months for algae blooms to grow, deprive the water of oxygen and kill fish.
Lewis said the water near his house has been a grayish-green color for more than a year and that he's smelled sewage over that time, but he didn't report his observations to anyone.