Briar Chapel sewer company struggles continue

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The troubles for Old North State Water Company in Briar Chapel — and Envirolink, the company which manages its operations — continue.

Old North and Envirolink have been plagued with problems of sewer spills in the Briar Chapel community. The town of Pittsboro severed its contract with the company for the operation of the Reclamation Plant under construction in Pittsboro on Aug. 10. At the same time, a the developer of Williams Corner, planned for the area, has temporarily put his project on hold. In addition, the companies’ attempts to connect the Briar Chapel system to the aging system at Fearrington Village has again been delayed.

Some history

Since 2016, Briar Chapel’s sewer lines have spilled more than 47,000 gallons of raw sewage with nearly 39,000 gallons estimated to have reached surface water, according to the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality. This year alone, more than 15,000 gallons of sewage has made its way to surface water from the community’s sewer lines.

The system is owned by Old North State Water Company and maintained by Envirolink. The relationship between the two companies is greatly intertwined. Recent correspondence from DEQ lists Michael Myers, the president of Envirolink, as the president of Old North State Water. But the president of Old North State Water, which is based in Alabama, is John McDonald, according to documents filed with the N.C. Utilities Commission. The companies have seemed to merge together for the purposes of the work in Chatham County into Old North State Water North Chatham with Myers at the helm.

Last year, DEQ assessed nine violations and ultimately penalized the company $1,500. Letters of violation have also been sent to the company for this year’s incidents including one for having an invalid operator designated, but penalty assessments are still “pending,” according to DEQ documents.

During that same period, the companies were working through the process with the NCUC to connect the Briar Chapel system with Fearrington Village. The residents of both communities soon began speaking out against the merger. At a January public hearing on the subject, 230 people were in attendance with more than 30 speaking in opposition to the transfer.

Following the public hearing, the public staff at the NCUC filed a motion to postpone public hearings scheduled for later in January and instead schedule a June evidentiary hearing.

“The Public Staff is extremely concerned about the extensive and compelling customer testimony on the reclaimed water issues,” the motion stated, “including odor, excessive watering, spraying outside the permitted areas, windblown reclaimed water, and the lack of responsiveness by Old North State and Environlink’s to the customer complaints.”

In the meantime, the NCUC allowed three additional groups to participate in the process as intervenors — the Briar Chapel Community Association, StopChathamNorth and the Fearrington Homeowners Association — and more than 600 residents signed a petition against the project. The petition later become part of the public record for the NCUC investigation.

In May, the hearing was postponed to September “to allow the Public Staff and intervenors time to further investigate and prepare testimony on issues in this case.” The actual date is likely to be later than that, according to Bill Grantmyre, a member of the public staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission leading the investigation. Grantmyre said that the team is still working to gather information from the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality and other outside sources. He believed the hearing could be anywhere from November to January.

Briar Chapel’s most recent spill of 8,400 gallons of untreated wastewater on July 26 may have further complicated matters. Grantmyre said the commission was aware of the spill and is working with the other regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the system.

But the last spill was enough for at least one developer.

Chris Ehrenfeld — a partner in Chatham Media Group, which owns the News + Record — and the owner of Bold Development, the developr of Williams Corner, put public hearings on the project on hold citing concerns about the ability of the company to manage wastewater. In the letter to the county requesting the delay, Ehrenfeld said his company relies “on utility partnerships and have faith in local providers to hold up their end of the bargain and adequately perform the services for which we engage them. Bold is not willing to gamble with the health of our surrounding community.”

At the same time, the town of Pittsboro voted unanimously to sever its agreement with Old North State Water Company for the operation of its wastewater reclamation plant still under construction on U.S. Hwy. 64 East at its regular meeting on Monday, August 10. The town originally entered into an operators agreement with Old North State Water Company in May 2018. The resolution dissolving that relationship stated that “irreconcilable issues” between Chatham Park and Old North State Water Company “have arisen in 2020” making it such that Chatham Park has not entered into an agreement with them to own and operate the facility. That agreement was a pre-requisite for the original operator agreement with the town.

Tim Smith, one of the developers with Chatham Park, said that while the two companies are in negotiations, without an agreement, Chatham Park asked the town to make the change for the NPDES permit, the one issued from N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality that allows the plant to operate.

“The town’s NPDES permit needed to be in the same name as the town agreement on the Chatham Park plant as directed by the state,” Smith said. “It was decided that putting both the permit and the agreement in Chatham Park’s name was best. That way if there ever was a change in operators of the plant, the name, Chatham Park, would not need to change.”

What Old North State Water Company, Envirolink and the combines Old North State Water Chatham North do moving forward is likely a question for regulators. The companies own and operate dozens of facilities across the state, most of which are smaller subdivision size water systems and seven wastewater systems.

The Briar Chapel system is “substantially larger” than any of the other systems that it operates, according to Grantmyre. According to records from the N.C. Utilities Commission, the average user number for its water systems is 40. Its six other wastewater treatment plants range between 10,000 to 150,000 gallons per day. The system in Briar Chapel processes about 250,000 gallons per day and has over 1,700 customers. Grantmyre said that he was not aware of any current action against any of those systems.

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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