State officials brought a long-disputed regional wastewater treatment plant one step closer to reality today.
North Carolina's Division of Water Quality issued a permit that allows three western Wake County towns to send 18 million gallons of water to the Cape Fear River through the sewage center that the towns have jointly planned in the community of New Hill.
"It's one of the most important permits that we needed to acquire," said Stephen Brown, Cary's director of public works and utilities. "It is a major step."
The project, which still needs a construction permit from the state, would serve Cary, Apex and Morrisville collectively known as the Western Wake Partners. The trio are planning the $327 million project in part to comply with a state environmental mandate to return treated wastewater to the Cape Fear River basin.
The plant would also allow the towns to expand by providing an outlet for sewage created by new residents and businesses.
In granting the permit, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has approved the towns' plans to send water to the river and fulfill the state's mandate.
The permit allows the town to eventually expand their Cape Fear River discharge to 30 million gallons per day. In granting the permit, DENR weighed the impact on the river of the discharge and the nutrients it would carry.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also blessed a positive environmental assessment of the project last summer.
Now the most significant state approval to be won for the project is DENR's authorization to construct the plant. The state will review the project's permits and designs before it decides whether the plant can be built.
Some people who live near the proposed plant have continued their legal battle against it.
The issuance of the discharge permit "was something that we were expecting to happen," said Paul Barth, president of the New Hill Community Association. "We're still going to pursue doing whatever we can do."
He and other New Hill residents urged the state not to issue the permit at a public hearing in September.
Mayor Harold Weinbrecht of Cary said the project's planners are working toward mediation with New Hill residents.
Plant proponents must also reach an accord with the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. The Western Wake Partners have asked the Chatham board's permission to run eight-mile discharge pipe from the plant through Chatham county to the Cape Fear River.
Late last year, just before a new majority of members joined the board, Chatham commissioners unanimously and formally suggested that the new board demand concessions before it approved the discharge line.
The five commissioners wanted Chatham and Cary to continue to hammer out the contentious joint land-use plan that the two governments proposed years ago. Progress on that agreement has snagged on disagreements between the governments.
They also wanted the Western Wake Partners to refrain from using the power of eminent domain as they build the pipeline.
And they wanted a legal promise from the state that Cary could not annex any property from Chatham County without the county's approval.
Three of the five county commissioners have since been replaced, and the new board's stance is still unclear.
Weinbrecht criticized the demands at the time, saying the commissioners were using a critical infrastructure project as a lever in irrelevant issues. Today he said that the town and county are resuming meetings of their joint subcommittees. Relations between the governments reached an impasse last year as they debated land-use plans.
Now the governments will "see if we can establish some common grounds," Weinbrecht said.
Chatham County has tenatively scheduled a hearing about the pipeline for Feb. 7. The hearing might be held in Moncure, close to the proposed path of the pipe.
In a press release, Commissioner Mike Cross said that the meeting would be an airing of concerns.
People in the eastern part of the county have strong feelings on the discharge line and we need to fully understand what they are," said Cross, who is not a new member of the board.
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