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Little doubt that Western Wake Partners will be able to get the state legislature to force the waste water project through

By Donna Kelly
Posted Monday, February 21, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - There’s been a lot of discussion about the Western Wake Partners (WWP) waste water treatment plant to be built in New Hill and the discharge line to the Cape Fear below Buckhorn Dam in Chatham County. The simple answer is that our BOC should just say “No!” to protect the property owners and the community that would be affected by the line. Opponents fear not only the direct affects of the line but also future expansion of Cary and Apex into Chatham County. They see this as a repetition of past abuse by larger entities at their expense, especially the creation of Jordan Lake. They believe that by saying no we can stop this project and protect Chatham County from further encroachment. Unfortunately, looking at the history and scope of this project I’m afraid that’s a very naïve belief.

I’ve been aware of this project for a while because it’s been a frequent topic of discussion at the many BOC meetings I’ve attended over the past two years. I’ve also been digging into the official project documents as well as Chatham County BOC minutes to put together a full picture of this project. This will be a long review but it’s as simple as I could make it and still touch on all the issues involved.

A review of this project is a perfect example of a true bureaucratic nightmare. The alphabet soup of state and federal agencies that have to approve the many permits and reports that are required, often with conflicting goals is amazing. This project started back in the 90s with a plan for future infrastructure in Wake County. Obviously, Chatham County wasn’t part of the initial planning because it was a Wake County planning effort.

Cary and Apex draw their water from Jordan Lake which is part of the Cape Fear River basin. Their current waste water treatment facilities discharge treated water into the Neuse River basin. When Cary/Apex applied for an additional water allotment from Jordan Lake in 2001, they were told they could have it but would have to start returning a percentage of that water to the Cape Fear River basin by 2011. This is the Interbasin Transfer (IBT) that is often discussed. Obviously, any time one community draws water from a river basin it’s no longer available to communities downstream. That’s why the state mandates water users to return water to the same river system they draw it from. That’s also why communities downstream, such as Fayetteville, are in favor of this project and will be impacted by it.

This mandate and their need for increased capacity were the drivers behind the current WWP project. The state also strongly recommended the communities work together on a regional solution rather than continuing to operate separate facilities. A joint project would most likely have fewer environmental and other impacts than separate projects. Economy of scale would allow better facilities to be built with better staffing to reduce the likelihood of accidents and allow quicker responses if something does go wrong. In addition, Holly Springs, which was discharging its treated waste water into Harris Lake, was strongly encouraged to remove its discharge from Harris Lake if it ever wanted to expand its facility. That’s why Holly Springs joined with WWP as a limited partner to tap into their discharge line.

WWP was formed in 2002 and began a series of studies to determine what the best solution was. They looked at several configurations of multiple plants, a single plant, upgrading existing plants and purchasing capacity from other municipalities. For a number of reasons the single plant solution was chosen as the best option. They also had to decide where to discharge the treated water. Their preferred locations were Jordan or Harris Lakes. These locations were closer and would also return the water to a point where it would be available for them to draw on again helping to ensure the available water supply. Unfortunately state agencies would not initially allow them to discharge into either lake.

By 2005 they started an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) with the state. They worked with the state in 2006 and early 2007 to revise the draft EIS. In 2006 they submitted a permit application to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). By 2007 it was decided to switch from a state EIS to a federal EIS overseen by USACE which would satisfy requirements for both state and federal regulations. It gets confusing because there were numerous studies done by different agencies with a far amount of overlap. The project also kept evolving through the continuous review as issues were raised and addressed. Also the various studies sometimes have a different focus or objective so issues that seem like they should be critical are not relevant to that study.

A draft Environmental Impact Study was prepared and a series of meetings held by the Project Delivery Team (PDT) during 2007 and 2008. Chatham County had representatives on that team as well as other involved parties. This review team thoroughly evaluated every aspect of this project as it was then proposed. While the PDT didn’t make final decisions this was the opportunity for issues with the project to be raised and addressed. A lot of questions were raised and answered at these meetings.

While the PDT meetings were being held the state changed its opinion on a Harris Lake discharge and said that it would consider a discharge if additional modeling studies were performed and the results met their requirements. WWP started those studies and there are several reports on their progress in the minutes from the PDT meetings. Unfortunately it also became clear that due to changes to the IBT regulations passed by the state legislature in 2007 the WWP would require a revised or new IBT in order to discharge into Harris Lake instead of the site below Buckhorn Dam. Due to those same regulatory changes that permit would take at least three to four years to acquire. The final clarification on that time frame came in an email in 2009.

Now you may remember that WWP was under mandate to start returning water to the Cape Fear River basin by 2011. Realizing they weren’t going to meet that goal they entered into an agreement with Durham in 2004 that allowed them to pipe some of their sewage to a Durham plant for treatment at a plant that discharges treated water into Jordan Lake. This was a temporary solution that will only last until 2014 because Durham expects to need that capacity by then. Although it’s possible that the modeling studies would allow WWP to discharge into Harris Lake they were out of options and time to comply with the IBT therefore the Harris Lake option was no longer viable for the project as a whole. However, the studies have allowed Holly Springs to pull out of the project since they are now working with the state to gain authorization to continue discharging into Harris Lake. Since they were already discharging to that location they don’t need a new IBT.

The WWP received their permit from USACE in July 2010. This was last the major hurdle in construction of an over $300 million waster water treatment system that is expected to serve over 400,000 people at full buildout in 20 or 30 years.

Now whatever your feelings are about this project, how any part of it was carried out or how it affects any one particular person or community do you get an appreciation for the size and scope of this project? Now ask yourself if this comes before the state legislature how will they decide. On the one hand they have a project that will benefit several hundred thousand people that has been scrutinized over ten years of regulatory hoop-jumping and on the other there are twelve property owners who will have a very large pipe carrying treated water under their land. I fully realize that if you’re one of those twelve property owners or someone in the surrounding community there’s a lot more to it and I don’t mean to belittle your concerns. However if you boil things down to the simplest terms, which is no doubt how the state legislature will look at it, that’s what you get. Our BOC can vote no but based on the size and scope of this project I have no doubt that WWP will be able to get the state legislature to force the project through.

In October the BOC discussed this very issue and Sally Kost said she would vote against the project if she thought it would stick but admitted she thought WWP would go to the state legislature to force the issue. I remember Mike Cross at that or a different discussion saying he thought it might take them a couple years but he agreed that they would get it through. I’ve since been told WWP thinks they can get it approved this session if they have to. That’s why the BOC never proposed to simply deny the project but to use it to negotiate for whatever concessions they could possibly get for Chatham County.

This project has been in the works for at least 10 years and it’s much too late to force a change to the location of the pipeline. It’s time to accept that and work out the best deal we possibly can to bring the most benefit to Chatham County. I realize it’s a property rights issue to the people that don’t want this line or the development it might bring, but it’s also a property rights issue to the people who can’t use their land without this plant on either side of the county line. It’s not a simple issue and affects a great many people. At this point I think we’re much better off working with WWP than to say “No” just to say “No”. I think we’ll get a lot more out of the deal if we work with them now than if we force them to go through the state legislature when they’ll have no incentive to work with us at all in the future.

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Little doubt that Western Wake Partners will be able to get the state legislature to force the waste water project through