UNC fined for wastewater leak at research unit

Staff writerMay 19, 2010 

— The state has fined UNC-Chapel Hill $15,000 for a treated wastewater leak at an animal research facility that reached a creek feeding the Haw River.

The fine plus investigative costs total $16,612.48.

UNC-CH officials first suspected a partially filled 1.6 million gallon storage pond at the Bingham Facility was leaking in October 2009, according to university correspondence. It did not report it to the state until December 2009 as it continued to investigate the problem.

“It was a violation,” Jay Zimmerman, environmental program supervisor at the Division of Water Quality, said Wednesday. “It did occur for an amount of time, but they were trying to determine if it was a leak or not.”

The leakage likely contained very low levels of nitrogen and fecal coliform, Zimmerman said.

It led to the fine because it reached state waters, Collins Creek, not because it posed an environmental threat, he said. Collins Creek flows into the Haw River, which feeds Jordan Lake.

The leak triggered the first of three violation notices the state issued the research facility in Bingham Township, located in rural western Orange County.

-- An 1,800 gallon treated wastewater spill in February will likely not lead to a fine, Zimmerman said, because it fell onto the ground and did not reach the creek. State officials did consider it an aggravating factor in levying the fine for the 2009 leak, he said.

-- A more recent notice of violation cited encroaching onto wetlands, among other findings. UNC-CH has until Friday to respond to that.

In the case of the 2009 wastewater leak, UNC-CH can pay the fine, ask for a reduction or appeal the fine in court, Zimmerman said.

Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Lowman, now overseeing the Bingham Facility, said university officials will discuss their options at a regularly scheduled meeting Friday.

mark.schultz@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2003

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