ONSWC responds to customer complaints on proposed Briar Chapel wastewater transfer proposal

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/14/20

Old North State Water Company, the firm which oversees wastewater treatment in the Briar Chapel development, said it has heard customers’ complaints and has promised improvements, as well as offered explanations, in a 13-page document submitted in response to resident testimony.

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ONSWC responds to customer complaints on proposed Briar Chapel wastewater transfer proposal

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Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories on the proposed wastewater transfer from Fearrington Village to Briar Chapel. There will be more in next week’s edition of the News + Record.

CHAPEL HILL — Old North State Water Company, the firm which oversees wastewater treatment in the Briar Chapel development, said it has heard customers’ complaints and has promised improvements, as well as offered explanations, in a 13-page document submitted in response to resident testimony.

The company has been under fire in recent months by Briar Chapel residents in light of ONSWC’s plan to transfer the wastewater operations at Fearrington Village, a mile down the road off of U.S. Hwy. 15-501 north of Pittsboro. More than 600 residents signed a petition to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which oversees ONSWC, asking the Commission to deny the application, citing multiple wastewater spills and alleging poor customer service.

Odors

The primary complaint from many customers was the presence of foul odors from both the treatment plant and the development’s irrigation system. ONSWC says in the report that it is “committed to reducing and managing odors from the wastewater treatment plant to the extent practicable and has taken numerous steps to address this issue,” including spending $100,000 a year on a calcium nitrate solution designed to “inhibit the formation of hydrogen sulfide and its odor” and a $350,000 investment in an “air scrubbing system” that would clean the air using carbon filtration “prior to being released to the atmosphere.”

ONSWC cited “an unfortunate and unusual confluence of circumstances” regarding that latter process as the cause of odor issues last year. The report stated that while seeking to replace the filtering tools, an air pump would not restart and needed to be replaced, which took three weeks.

“But this waiting period for the new pump resulted in about a one-month period where the air scrubbing system at the wastewater treatment plant was out of service,” the report said. “Also, because this occurred during the summer, the higher ambient air temperatures exacerbated the odors.”

Within the irrigation system, the company says it found organic material coming from the reclaimed water pond and not the plant itself. That organic material could have included “ducks, geese, and vegetation, such as duckweed,” and steps are in progress to rectify that.

Spills

The company was given letters of violation by both the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality and Chatham County Watershed Protection Department in recent years — one from DEQ in October 2017 and again in August 2019, and one from the county in September 2019. Combined, the spills accounted for more than 14,000 gallons of sewage.

In its report, ONSWC claims that, after acquiring in 2014 the setup previously run by Briar Chapel Utilities, it found “design issues...where previous breaks had occurred,” and an initial upgrade was completed in 2018. One of the breaks, the report says, “occurred during the period ONSWC was completing the work to address the items identified previously.” Additional issues arose last year due to “pressure waves in the line,” which led to the company installing three air relief valves in September 2019.

Along with upgrades to a lift station, the report stated such “measures should address the cause of those overflows and prevent them from occurring in the future.”

Customer Service

Another common complaint among customers was ONSWC’s lack of response, through Envirolink — the company responsible for day-to-day operation of the wastewater treatment plant — to concerns from residents.

ONSWC said in its report that it found “no evidence of calls not being answered or subsequent service orders not being issued.” Perhaps, it argued, customers called the development’s homeowners association or another group seeking resolution. But an internal review of service order response times led to the company saying that “the vast majority of service orders are completed within the same day,” dating back to ONSWC’s takeover of the system.

The company stressed in the letter that it was “committed to improving relations and communications within the Briar Chapel community” and expressed its willingness to have meetings open to the entire neighborhood to report on the progress of its efforts. It added that many of the changes “will not be apparent” until the spring.

ONSWC Moving Forward

In a telephone interview with the News + Record, ONSWC President Michael Myers said the relationship between his firm and Briar Chapel customers is “strained” and that the company is committed to repairing it.

“We are working very, very diligently to address those concerns,” Myers said. “A lot of the mechanical issues that are related to a lot of those concerns, we have addressed a lot of those already and have upgraded the issues that have manifested themselves. There are additional upgrades and improvements above and beyond any regulatory requirements that we are planning to make in the near future.”

As in the report, Myers stressed the company’s desire to “dialogue with our customers” and that ONSWC has hired someone to put together a communications plan.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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