Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Utility has ‘taken action’ to recover fine cost
With nearly $150 million slated for capital improvement projects over the next decade, a penalty of about $6,000 for the nearly 6 million-gallon sewage spill on the French Broad River may be a drop in the bucket for the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County.
Yet the $6,137 fine levied by state environmental regulators has been paid by the non-profit utility, essentially closing the case on the April 30th incident that led to the utility’s largest spill in two decades.
On June 18, the N.C. Division of Water Quality fined MSD with a civil penalty of $6,000 and enforcement costs of $137. According to Chuck Cranford, supervisor of the surface water protection section of the DWQ, the minimum fine environmental officials can levy is $4,000. There is no maximum. More: CPP’s Special Report on water quality threats to the French Broad River basin
MSD, which is a publicly owned utility, had 10 days to respond to the violation with more details about what led to the spill and how it planned to prevent similar incidents in the future, Cranford said. It also had 30 days to pursue one of three options: pay the fine, request remission of the penalty for mitigating factors or petition for an administrative hearing.
MSD chose to pay.
“MSD regrets the accident and believes that the fine is appropriate considering state rules governing such matters,” said MSD General Manager Tom Hartye in an email to Carolina Public Press.
Cause: ‘Human error’
In the June 6 report providing a synopsis of the spill and the clean-up effort, MSD said that human error was the cause of the incident. See MSD’s full report below.
In the report, officials said that the mishap occurred during a capital-improvement project to replace a 25-year-old pump at the influent pump station at MSD’s Woodfin treatment plant. The work was contracted to Gilbert Engineering Services and supervised by MSD staff.
According to the report, fail-safe procedures agreed to in a pre-construction conference were not followed. The fail-safe procedure included shutting down the station’s pumps and draining the system before the pump’s replacement.
According to the report, a MSD construction inspector assigned to coordinate the job with the contractor said he believed it was okay to do the work without shutting down the pumps. In a later interview with MSD’s top managers, the inspector contradicted his initial statement, saying that he had no intention of starting the replacement without shutting down the pumps and expected the contractor to indicate when the pumps should be shut down. According to the report, the contractor began the work while the inspector was briefly distracted by another maintenance project.
The report states that MSD has taken a “personnel action” against the employee and placed Gilbert Engineering Services on “notice of their responsibility.”
“MSD has already taken action to recover the cost of the fine from the responsible parties,” Hartye said. He did not respond to a question about what that action was.
MSD also stated in the report that they have purchased a much larger sump pump in the event that an accident occurs. That would expand its time to react to a spill and to prevent raw sewage from reaching a body of surface water. MSD also reported that it had shared its investigation report with its entire staff since human error was the cause of the spill.
Cranford said that sanitary sewer overflows – or SSOs – are common. In the division’s Asheville region, which includes the far western counties of the state, there were 25 such incidents during the year before the MSD spill.
But, he said, an event like this — one in which humans are at fault — is rare.
“SSOs are going to happen,” Cranford said. “There are so many variables in managing wastewater. In this case, it was clearly an error in judgment and communication.
“We are confident they’ve made changes to prevent this in the future.”MSD Notice Of Violation Response (PDF)
MSD Notice Of Violation Response (Text)