Local News

Critics Wonder If Wastewater Treatment Plant Will Get Clean Bill Of Health

Posted November 14, 2003 6:23 a.m. EST

— Raleigh's wastewater treatment plant has been under fire since last year when the state started to investigate mismanagement of sludge at the plant that ultimately cause dangerous levels of nitrogen to contaminate groundwater. The city says the cleanup is on track and hopes to get a clean bill of health from the state soon, but not everyone is so optimistic.

Public Utilities Director Dale Crisp now admits foresight could have prevented problems at the plant. Last year, the state fined the city more than $80,000 for putting too much sludge on its 1,000-acre tract of farmland.

"Had we purchased more land sooner for managing the biosolids, this could have been prevented," Crisp said.

"This kind of thing should not have happened in the city of Raleigh," said Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. "Frankly, it's embarrassed us throughout the Neuse River basin to have this kind of problem. We simply need to take care of it as soon as we can."

Officials said the problems at the wastewater treatment plant have caused groundwater contamination, contamination of local wells and contamination of the Neuse River.

Dean Naujoks, the riverkeeper of the Upper Neuse River, said he is so concerned about mismanagement of Raleigh's Public Utilities Department that he has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate. He said he is skeptical that managers who created the problems can also clean them up.

"I have not seen any changes in the last year and a half in how this department has managed things other than that they have been forced to fix problems we identified at the waste treatment plant," he said.

As a temporary fix, the city is paying to have the sludge trucked off the property to farmers and landscapers. However, many people fear the full cleanup will take years and cost tens of millions of dollars.

So far, the city has spent $4 million to deal with this issue -- pushing water and sewer rates up at an average of 9 percent a year.

"It's not going to be $200 million I don't believe, but it could be a significant investment. It depends on where the ultimate decision winds up," Crisp said.

Right now, that decision is in the state's hands. The city submitted its cleanup plan to the Division of Water Quality in September and is waiting for a response.

The state says it is still reviewing the city's report on its cleanup progress and plan. The state can accept it or make recommendations for other improvements, which could cost more money. As far as the Environmental Protection Agency goes, officials said it is their policy not to comment on ongoing investigations.