Under the Dome

SELC threatens to sue Burlington over Haw River sewage spills

Two environmental groups have notified Burlington they intend to sue the city unless it prevents raw sewage from spilling into the Haw River.

A 60-day notice is required before a lawsuit can be filed by members of the public to stop violations of the federal Clean Water Act. If local or state regulators fail to take their own enforcement action during that period, then a citizen lawsuit can be filed.

If that sounds familiar, it is. It’s the same tactic used by the Southern Environmental Law Center in its battle with state regulators over coal ash from Duke Energy. SELC is also handling the action against Burlington, on behalf of the Haw River Assembly and the Cape Fear River Watch.

SELC and river protection advocates have stepped up their efforts since the General Assembly curtailed environmental safeguards in recent years. The 60-day notice was also sent to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In January, 3 ½ million gallons of untreated wastewater spilled from Burlington’s wastewater collection system into the Haw River. There were 20 spills that discharged almost 240,000 gallons of raw sewage into the river and its tributaries in 2013. Only two of those spills drew civil penalties by the state, according to SELC’s notice.

“To date, DWR (state Division of Water Resources) enforcement actions against Burlington have been sparse, sporadic and lenient,” the notice says.

“The Burlington system is one of the worst of the worst,” said Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch in a news release. “On average, over the last six years, they have discharged raw sewage into the river more than once a month.”

A spokeswoman for Burlington said Thursday that the city attorney was reviewing the notice, and might have a response next week.

Water from the Haw runs into Jordan Lake and then into the Cape Fear River.

The state has developed a plan for cleaning up pollution in Jordan Lake by limiting the amount of nutrients in discharges from Burlington and other upstream users, but the General Assembly has put that plan on hold for at least three years while it experiments with lake-cleaning technology.