State to buy giant mixers for Jordan Lake
Posted December 13, 2013
Updated December 14, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources is preparing to sign a controversial $1.3 million contract for experimental water-pollution technology for Jordan Lake, raising questions again about the technology and the contract itself.
DENR spokeswoman Sarah Young said the state plans to sign the contract with Medora, the maker of the SolarBee, sometime in the next four weeks. "The target date to have the devices in the lake is April 1," she told WRAL News in an email.
SolarBees are solar-powered aerators that churn the water near the lake's surface. Backers say they will help reduce blue-green algae blooms in areas of the lake near water intakes.
Supporters of the project, such as Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, who sponsored the law suspending the pollution control rules for Jordan Lake for three years, say the mixers could allow the state to ease upstream pollution controls permanently. That's a goal cities and real estate lobbyists have been pushing for years.
DENR Division of Water Quality Director Tom Reeder said the plan is to install nearly three dozen of the devices – "approximately 24 in the Morgan Creek arm of the lake and 12 in the Haw River arm of the lake." The contract is a two-year lease with an option to buy the devices later.
SolarBees are currently in use on a smaller scale in a smaller reservoir near Houston to combat "taste and smell issues" in drinking water. Houston Public Works spokesman Alvin Wright says they've performed well for several years.
"We love them," Wright told WRAL News. "They're a good investment."
But skeptics, including environmental advocates and at least three state representatives, say the technology is "unproven" for combating pollution.
"The best science tells us that the way to clean up the lake is through pollution controls upstream. Water mixers will do nothing to address new pollution flowing into the lake. This is just a poor investment in taxpayers funds," said Sierra Club spokesman Dustin Chicurel-Bayard.
"I don’t know that the SolarBee technology can be brought to scale on Jordan Lake or even a finger of Jordan Lake," said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. "I’m wondering what taxpayer protections we have if it doesn't work."
The provision for the SolarBee contract was inserted at the last minute into the final version of the 2013 state budget, in violation of legislative rules.
"The Department shall enter into a contract with a third party that can deploy floating arrays of in-lake, long-distance circulators to reduce or prevent the adverse impacts of excessive nutrient loads, such as algal blooms, taste and odor problems in drinking water, and low levels of dissolved oxygen," the budget states.
While neither Medora nor SolarBees are named in the bill, the following two pages of the budget bill list specifications that are nearly identical to the SolarBee's specifications.
The provision also exempts the contract from the state's usual competitive bidding process.
During the House floor debate, McGrady said the provision appeared to be a "sole-source" contract, which would be unconstitutional. Reps. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, and Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, echoed that observation.
"I think the thing was written in such a way that there was only one company that could qualify," McGrady reiterated Friday. "Why that is, I don’t know, but it really seems that that’s the way the contract was written."
Months ago, McGrady asked State Auditor Beth Wood to investigate the provision, but he says he has not received a response to his letter.
Medora is based in North Dakota, but its vice president and director of science is Ken Hudnell, an adjunct faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former neurobiologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Before the provision appeared in the budget, Hudnell met with legislative staff, including Jeff Warren, chief science and environmental adviser to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
McGrady said the provision was inserted by Senate staff: "This was not something the House had put in it, or that DENR was pushing," he said.
House environmental budget-writer Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said during the debate that DENR had requested the provision. DENR denied making that request.
Neither Berger's office nor Warren responded to WRAL News' inquiries about the insertion in July.
DENR spokeswoman Sarah Young said the state's required environmental assessment of the project has been turned over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It's not the first time the corps has weighed an aeration system for Jordan Lake or the first time it's been asked to appraise SolarBees for it.
In 2012, Cary asked the corps for findings on a smaller aeration project near the town's Jordan Lake water intake. The corps recommended a type of technology other than SolarBee.
According to the September 2013 final report, the corps didn't recommend SolarBees for Cary's project "because it would require an estimated 20 floating aerators in the lake, resulting in significantly higher navigational and recreational impacts.”
In an appendix to the report, the corps reiterated that SolarBees are "not compatible with the multiple uses of Jordan Lake in the vicinity of the site” near Cary's intake.
Asked why the state chose the Medora technology for its project, Reeder noted the system recommended by the corps is not solar-powered.
"Because the pilot test will employ a larger number of devices," Reeder wrote, "it is important (in my mind) to keep operating costs to a minimum, and therefore, the solar-power option on the SolarBees becomes critical.
"Regarding any potential impacts to recreation or other uses in the lake from the deployment of the SolarBee devices, the SolarBees are designed with a small footprint to minimize these impacts," he added.
WRAL News asked whether any other vendor had even responded to DENR's request for bids. Neither Reeder nor Young answered that question.