City, Riverkeeper reach settlement

Apr. 22, 2014 @ 11:02 AM

The City of Thomasville reached a settlement in its lawsuit with the Yadkin Riverkeeper over repeated violations of the Clean Water Act.
Under the proposed settlement, which has been submitted to the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, the city will continue its efforts to improve its wastewater system and address the causes of any spills. The city and the Southern Environmental Law Center, a law firm retained by the Yadkin Riverkeeper last August to handle the case, reached the settlement last week with both sides coming away satisfied.
“I am glad that we satisfactorily resolved the case and can avoid the unnecessary expense of litigation, and use those resources to continue our progress in correcting and upgrading our facilities,” Mayor Joe Bennett said. “I appreciate the continuing good work of our staff which has been implementing these positive changes in cooperation with the City Council over the past few years.”
Conditions of the settlement require Thomasville to incorporate its 10-year Capital Improvement Plan, which was put in place in 2009 following a wastewater collection system study. The city is required by consent decree to complete upgrades to areas of the system that were the source of past discharges. Both parties agreed that completing the 10-year-plan will reduce the number of spills from the city's wastewater collection system.
“The problem of wastewater spills is not going to be fixed overnight, but this agreement is an important step toward reducing these spills into High Rock Lake and tributaries of the Yadkin River in the long term,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Najouks. “People in Thomasville and downstream of Thomasville have a right to clean and safe water.”
Several projects included in the plan either have been completed or are underway. Replacing the Baptist Children's Home collector line, the site of the 15.9 million gallon spill in 2009, is finished and projects at the East Davidson Pump Station, Northside Pump Station and North Hamby outfall line are under construction or in the final planning stages.
“We have three current projects underway and will continue to work with the [N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources] to get our planned additional sewer system improvement projects approved, funded and construction completed,” City Manager Kelly Craver said. “We are all in this together and have the same desired end result – better water quality in High Rock Lake and the Yadkin River.”
In November, the city will assess the performance of its system. If there is no reduction in the number and volume of spills, the city will be required to reassess its plan.
“This agreement ensures that Thomasville will take the necessary steps to improve its wastewater collection infrastructure to protect the waters of the Yadkin River, “ said Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the SELC. “This agreement is a win for the citizens of Thomasville and for everyone who uses the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake.”
Terms of the agreement also require the city to take water quality samples from any large wastewater spills, clean 15 percent of its sewer lines every year, actively enforce its grease reduction ordinance, distribute an annual report to its residents on any spills and its action to reduce spills and support a Hamby Creek restoration plan.
The city also supports a comprehensive strategy to address nutrient pollution in High Rock Lake. Accepting a yet-to-be established High Rock Lake Nutrient Management program was a sticking point in the negotiations last month, but a change in the language of the settlement led to the agreement.
“We did put in the consent decree that Thomasville recognizes the need for a strategy,” City Attorney Paul Mitchell said. “We recognize that there is a nutrient problem in High Rock Lake. It was substantially re-worded, instead of requiring us to support a specific initiative. The nutrient control strategy hasn’t been developed yet and might not be for three or four years. We didn’t want to bind this council or the the next council to a strategy that we didn’t even know what it was going to be.”
Thomasville is required to make payments to the Land Trust for Central North Carolina should it fail to meet any deadline in the settlement.

Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578 or