Group narrows solution options, begins preparations for report to commissioners

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PITTSBORO — In its final group meeting before sharing recommendations with the county’s board of commissioners, the Chatham County Wastewater Study Commission on Monday narrowed its list of potential solutions for addressing the county’s myriad of wastewater issues to six — three long-term and three interim.

The group plans to refine its work through email messaging while preparing a September presentation to commissioners.

At the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center in the board’s fifth meeting since January, study commission members discussed, brainstormed and ultimately voted — amiable, but with occasional strong disagreements — before whittling down its list from 10 potential options.

The group’s three long-term solution recommendations — to be explored in a second phase of its work, based on reaction by and direction from county commissioners — include two potential partnerships with nearby wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operators and the construction of a new WWTP system.

Those recommendations include:

• utilizing an extension of Durham County’s Triangle WWTP to northeast Chatham

• utilizing an extension of the South Durham system — part of the city of Durham’s wastewater system — to northeast Chatham

• building a new wastewater system for northeast Chatham, which would involve the formation of either a new public authority or a public/private partnership

Each of the three options provided unique challenges, including willing partners in Durham and the huge expenditure of a new WWTP. But Chatham’s rapid growth and existing problems with private wastewater system capacity in place necessitate solutions to allow for continued development in northeast Chatham.

Liz Rolison, one of the three co-chairpersons of the group, said the evaluation of the options would likely involve engineering studies that would, among other projections, look at Chatham’s wastewater demands over the next 30-50 years.

“Using that information, Phase 2 will need to further explore partnership arrangements with Durham County and City of Durham and assess whether the projected wastewater demand is sufficient to make building a regional wastewater system in northeast Chatham County viable — and if so where it would be located and how discharge will be handled,” she told the News + Record. “Depending on these findings, they will likely need a hydrology study to determine the feasibility and cost of moving wastewater from the study area — or a portion of the study area — to any of these three options.”

Rolison estimated the timeline of those options at eight to 10 years, and even longer for a new regional wastewater system.

The group also decided — with mixed consensus — on three interim options that would, among other things, provide a bridge to longer-term solutions and improve upon the 14 existing “package” WWTP operating in northeast Chatham County. Those plants handle about a million gallons of raw sewage per day, but some have experience multiple spills — particularly in Briar Chapel — and can’t accommodate projected growth in the area.

The interim options include:

• a “status quo” option that would continue the use of privately-owned systems, some of which have shown improved performance after ownership changes

• managing decentralized systems by providing oversight of existing package plants

• agricultural use of reclaimed water, which involves moving biosolids and some reclaimed water for processing and distributing to farmers in Chatham and surrounding counties

The group also eliminated three other potential solutions from further discussion and combined a fourth option with one on its interim list.

Study commission members devoted a little more than an hour of Monday’s meeting — with member Scott Peck facilitating — to brainstorming the benefits and challenges of the 10 options, with the goal of collectively deciding which of them to continue pursuing. Those options in the assessment exercise where “benefits,” as decided on by members, outweighed “challenges” were given consideration for additional discussion.

Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne, who was in attendance, told commission members the county’s growth necessitated having plans to address its wastewater issues “ready to go,” and that the county’s board of commissioners planned to follow through based on the commission’s efforts.

“We’re going to see the most dramatic changes in the county’s history in the next five years,” he said.

A decision to move forward with any of the longer-term options depends on additional information about projected growth, LaMontagne said, and the long-term plans of the private systems in the area.

“A demand projection study would be useful in answering many questions, but that study would be informed by potential future changes in land use that could result from the county’s Unified Development Ordinance project,” he said.

Rolison said the group still wasn’t clear about what to expect from the county when it makes its presentation to commissioners, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 19. The county, she said, has “been clear that they really don’t feel like wastewater is their responsibility — that it’s really the responsibility of the state, or municipalities.”

That would make one of the long-term solutions the group agreed to continue pursuing — building a regional WWTP in northeast Chatham County — a tall order.

Rolison said members of the study commission “were about evenly split” on the issue of “smart growth” versus “no growth” in Chatham County.

“But the thing that I think we all agree on is regardless of whether you want to promote growth or not, you have to have adequate wastewater infrastructure for what development is being approved,” she said. “And in northeast Chatham County, it’s been consistently growing. We can’t say it isn’t, you know, so we need to be ready for it. We need to handle it more responsibly.”

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