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Agency has 10 days to respond to state-issued environmental violation

A sign warns the public to avoid using the French Broad River following a nearly 6 million-gallon sewage spill on April 30. Jon Elliston/Carolina Public Press

Prompted by an April 30 mishap that dumped nearly 6 million gallons of raw sewage into the French Broad River, state environmental officials issued a notice of violation to the Metropolitan Sewage District of Buncombe County for discharging sewage without a valid permit. It is the waste-water agency’s largest spill in nearly two decades.

MSD, which is a non-profit, publicly owned utility, has 10 days to respond to the violation with more details about what led to the spill and how it plans to prevent similar incidents in the future, said Chuck Cranford, supervisor of the surface water protection section of the N.C. Division of Water Quality, which sent the violation on Tuesday, May 29.

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According to the sanitary collection permit issued by the state, MSD is required to report any sanitary sewer overflows or spills that reach surface water, regardless of the volume. In the year prior to the April 30 spill, MSD had 25 overflows ranging from 50 gallons to a 62,500-gallon spill that entered the French Broad River during this year’s torrential rains in January. While two violations were issued from those events, no civil penalties were levied.

“Considering MSD manages about 1,000 miles of collection lines, 31 pump stations and 28,368 manholes — which transport on average 18 million gallons of waste water every single day — the small number and limited amount of discharged waste water is a strong indicator of system management,” Cranford said. “When you maintain that many miles of pipe, some spills are expected.”

Still, the magnitude of the spill on April 30 will likely warrant a penalty, Cranford said. Officials have said that the spill resulted from a capital improvement project to replace three pumps at the MSD’s treatment facility in Woodfin. While a contractor was involved in the incident, Cranford said that MSD is the responsible party since it holds the permit.

Based on the MSD response to the notice of violation, water-quality officials will determine the scope of the penalty, which could include a fine. The minimum fine size is $4,000, and there is no maximum, according to Cranford.

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“A fine is an incentive for operators to always strive to remain in compliance and follow the conditions of their permit and be proactive in maintaining their systems,” he said. Officials with the Division of Water Quality’s Asheville regional office will consult with their counterparts at their Raleigh headquarters to determine an appropriate penalty.

Officials with MSD did not return multiple requests for comment from Carolina Public Press.

While the DWQ database does not extend back to 1993, Cranford said he believed that MSD was not fined for a larger spill during the blizzard of 1993 since it was a result of an act of nature. Environmental officials also did not issue either a violation or a penalty to MSD for a 2.2 million-gallon sewage spill when a large collection line was damaged in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan.

Once a penalty has been assessed, MSD will have 30 days to pursue one of three options: pay the penalty, request remission of the penalty for mitigating factors or petition for an administrative hearing.

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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  1. If the MSD if fined for the spill, who’s actually paying that cost? Since MSD is a non-profit public entity, won’t they simply raise rates, particularly if the fine is substantial?