Trying to make sense of the county’s wastewater crisis — through the eyes of an expert

Hal House, Chatham 21st host session examining reusing wastewater and biosolids for fertilizer and irrigation in farming

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Halford (Hal) House spent his early days on a self-sustaining farm in eastern N.C., followed by years in various roles in academia and business. Today, he’s a member of the Chatham County Wastewater Study Commission, and his work in the county has created and extended his passion for clean water.

He’ll help lead an information session Monday evening entitled “Balancing the Risks and Benefits of Agricultural Water Reuse.” It’ll be a presentation and discussion about the benefits and challenges of reusing wastewater and biosolids for fertilizer and irrigation in farming, and held from 6 to 9 p.m. at CCCC’s Siler City campus, at 400 Progress Blvd.

You can preregister at chatham21st@gmail.com; Chatham 21st has organized the event. Through Chatham 21st, House has advised and formed an alliance of Chatham County neighbors committed to education and advocacy for healthy sustainable growth.

“Nothing was wasted on our 100-acre farm run by two mules and seven children,” House recalls from his childhood. “Drinking water came from a bucket dropped into an open well and a privy out back provided natural relief. When we upgraded to indoor plumbing, my grandfather still preferred the privy since he did not believe in putting waste in good drinking water.”

That thinking, he said, led to the Chatham County project that was the first reuse project in N.C. It uses plants to clean water and recycles it back into an office building to flush toilets.

“Ultimately observing and trying to mimic how nature puts the sparkle back in smelly polluted water has been my guide,” House said. “Support from so many generous collaborators enabled me to provide critical pioneering development of nature-based solutions to providing clean water, its reuse and regulation. I have gained valuable knowledge through honest conversations with good people from all walks of life, especially my neighbors in Chatham County.”

House has multiple science and ecology degrees from N.C. State.

Here’s more from our extensive conversation with Hal House; a full version of the Q&A can be found at www.chathamnewsrecord.com:

Chatham’s rapid growth (20% increase in residents since the 2010 Census) has put demands on the county’s existing infrastructure. We’ve seen over the last couple of years the impact that’s had on water and wastewater systems in Pittsboro and Siler City. Add in the pollutants in drinking water sources, and you begin to get a feel for the challenge we have on our hands. Let’s start, though, with a look at Chatham 21st – what does your organization do and in what broad ways is it addressing those challenges?

First, I want to say that I have been given both the pleasure and responsibility to serve as a member of the Chatham Wastewater Study Commission (WWSC).Part of our charge is to examine such issues and questions that you note within this interview. Therefore, it is very important to realize that any comments that I make during our conversation are mine and do not represent the opinions or knowledge of the WWSC.

Chatham 21st is a community organization begun in late 2021 by concerned neighbors across eastern Chatham County. Before having a name, this group presented education meetings about wastewater treatment and its safe uses. We are working to expand our membership throughout Chatham County by reaching out to people in all walks of life.

We figure you’re never too young or too old to advocate for improvements in water quality and reliable supply.

Our priorities are to promote education and advocacy. Education for the community that defines the challenges of conserving and using our water resources wisely through promoting comprehensive, fact and science-based information with a focus on the successful traditional and promising emerging technologies. And our members share a passion for advocacy on water issues at the local, state, and federal levels.

Water, contrary to what some of us may think, isn’t an unlimited resource. Why is an understanding of water and the water cycle, and our use of water important?

As you suggest, how we view water is somewhat of a puzzling contradiction, a paradox. Even though we can’t live without it and access to clean water has been declared a basic human right, we generally take it for granted.

We have evolved into a society that relies on specialists to manage many aspects of our lives, and we have lost important knowledge concerning the where and how of water. Scientists and engineers manage our water so well that we rarely need to think past turning the tap or flushing the toilet.

This loss of knowledge and the parallel denial of personal responsibility create the ideal conditions for exploitation and/or system failure due to the lack of oversight by the most important participant, the consumer of the resource.

Much of your work has been devoted to studying wastewater treatment within Chatham County. Give us an overview of how that’s working now — and what happens when it doesn’t work so well …

In general, wastewater management technologies used in Chatham have evolved to reliably address the scale of growth and development demands. There is a wide range of effective technologies for every stage of growth but deciding what is appropriate during transitions is problematic.

Chatham County’s expressed goals are somewhat in conflict. There is interest in maintaining rural character, promoting selective high-density growth, and achieving balanced tax revenues to include additional industrial sectors. Policy-making that can achieve that goal in the presence of intense financial and political forces is daunting and dynamic depending on who holds the decision-making power.

We’ve reported and read lots about the problematic Briar Chapel wastewater treatment system and its spills. Is that isolated to just Briar Chapel?

I have seen similar situations around N.C. over what is a somewhat surprising span of time and of economic conditions. Problems have arisen in poor minority communities that are in the way of local political interest and on to communities with significant financial means faced with the vagaries of the prevailing government decision-making and management. Either case is a disservice to environmental justice and often an assault on the health of the communities involved.

Due to the N.C. Legislature’s policy as expressed in 2013’s HB 74 focus on economic growth and development over environmental issues, clean water, and wastewater system compliance do not get the needed oversight. Water regulatory bodies have lost funding, employees, and institutional memory. They have also had their regulations altered to minimize control of water pollution. Therefore, it is likely that these conditions have limited the ability of regulatory bodies to provide needed oversight of the problems at Briar Chapel and other communities due to a lack of personnel and support from state leadership.

Wastewater treatment systems that serve the communities of Chatham and elsewhere are highly mechanical and often receive poor maintenance. It is normal for mechanical systems to break down at points in their lifetime, but they should be repaired quickly.

What’s the solution to problematic privately-owned Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTPs)?

Regardless of whether a WWTP is privately or publicly-owned, it must be well designed, installed, and maintained.

We are fortunate to have an engineering community that designs with sound engineering practice, so design is rarely an issue. However, construction administration for very large and complex systems like, for example, the Briar Chapel WWTP, is a major challenge for engineering companies and may lead to a decrease in quality of materials and their installation.

One of the main limitations of privately-owned systems is that their operation and maintenance are typically managed by a separate business entity than the ownership. Due to the economic pressure of minimizing cost and maximizing profit, if the maintenance entity lacks competition in their business sector, the results can be a lack of preventive and routine maintenance. However, a privately-owned system with high quality operation and maintenance should operate as effectively as a publicly-owned system. The chosen technologies for both public and private approaches are selected based on the amount of wastewater and treatment level required. Either approach is effective if properly maintained.

How’s Chatham doing as a county, and how are its municipalities doing, in terms of handling wastewater? What could be done better on a governmental level, and on a private level?

Chatham County, through the Environmental Health Department, has responsibility for on-site septic systems that are largely dependent on soil conditions for proper operation. Chatham County has an effective program that provides clear options even though some of the most limiting soils exist over much of the county.

Chatham County can develop a Memorandum of Understanding in the future with the state regulatory entities to permit some degree of oversight of state regulated wastewater systems at the county level if the state political interests shift to environmental protection.

Operation and maintenance can be improved by implementing centralized monitoring and decentralized management for residential and community wastewater systems. The process is much the same as employed by utilities that monitor our electrical and Internet networks in real time and dispatch maintenance when there are operational problems.

Management of biosolids needs improvement since they are created at many sources and distributed to farmers and ranchers as free and safe. Distribution to a central location for processing to remove toxic chemicals and define their fertilizer content is needed for quality assurance and safety.

Odor control of community wastewater treatment systems can be significantly improved by the implementation of simple strategies currently not utilized. For example, return of treated irrigation water to the beginning of the process decreases the creation of noxious sulfur gases. In addition, Chatham County can create a Nuisance Control Ordinance that would combine odor, lighting, and noise control as a part of the current policy tool upgrades.

What do homeowners and users of these systems need to know?

This of course relates to an earlier question. We must first realize that we are all a part of water supply and wastewater treatment systems through our everyday activities. Once we can acknowledge this, each one of us can take effective actions to conserve water and to limit the extent and type of pollutants that we add to either system. For homeowners, perhaps the most effective role is to learn about the wastewater or water supply technology that serves them and to monitor and report its reliability.

Your organization is planning a series of public presentations about Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) and wastewater. What’s planned for those presentations, and why should people consider attending?

Our first public forum is entitled: “Balancing the Risk and Benefits of Agricultural Water Reuse.”

The forum will include presentations and discussions about the benefits and challenges of reusing treated wastewater in Chatham County. For agriculture, the reclamation and reuse of water and the fertilizer value within it can play a major role in addressing the high cost of fertilizer and providing water supply assurance during drought.

Another segment of the forum focuses on Contaminants of Emerging Concern of which Forever Chemicals, or PFAS , the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals that build up in our bodies and never break down in nature are one type. According to the Environmental Working Group, “Today, nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have PFAS in their blood and more than 200 million people may be drinking PFAS-tainted water.” Emerging research indicates that Forever Chemicals are linked to a variety of cancer and endocrine disruptions as well as increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, and increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.

We will provide three presentations: 1) Overview and evaluation of the use of reclaimed water for agriculture in the United States and its potentials for Chatham County; 2) Potential challenges of “Chemicals of Emerging Concern” within reclaimed water and biosolids for agricultural use; 3) Intriguing options for management of Forever Chemicals in agriculture, communities and homes.

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