Thomasville may face lawsuit because of aging sewer system
The City of Thomasville is facing a potential lawsuit from a conservation group claiming enough is not being done to prevent sewage spills into the Yadkin River Basin.
City Manager Kelly Craver said his office received a 23-page notice late Friday afternoon from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) threatening legal action unless violations from Thomasville's aging wastewater system are addressed in the next 60 days. SELC, a regional nonprofit founded in 1986 to protect the health and environment of the Southeast, sent the notice on behalf of the Yadkin Riverkeeper.
"It's a notification from this environmental law center that they have an intent to sue us and they're giving us 60 days," Craver said. "We received an official hard copy [Monday] by mail and we'll certainly review it and go from there."
Representatives from the SELC visited the Chair City on two occasions dating back to April, spending two days as part of a public records request going through documents pertaining to Thomasville's wastewater treatment plants and sewer collection system. In a press release, the SELC cited numerous violations of the federal Clean Water Act by the city for "repeatedly discharging untreated sewage from its wastewater system into waterways in the Yadkin River Basin."
"Knowing that this is what they do, and with them going through our documents, I can''t say that I was surprised," said Craver. "The state has all the information that they are privy to. It did make for a great thing to get it at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon."
In the four years since the 15.9 million gallon wastewater spill in the summer of 2009, the SELC said Thomasville has reported 144 additional sewer overflow episodes. The spills have led to more than 2.8 million gallons of untreated sewage reaching local waterways, the release stated. The state Division of Water Quality also is accused of not taking sufficient comprehensive enforcement action to address what the SELC deems a "pattern of violations."
Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the SELC, said that despite years of violations, the city has not made the systemwide improvements needed to prevent further spills.
"We hope that this notice will spur Thomasville to work with state agencies to create and fund an enforceable plan to end the sewage spills," said Youngman.
City Attorney Paul Mitchell said a dollar amount on the suit has yet to be filed. According to Mitchell, the city has several options it can explore, including hiring outside counsel to handle the case.
"The law requires a 60-day notice so the parties can get together and talk about it," Mitchell said. "We have a 60-day window where we can talk to them and negotiate avoiding a suit. One of the options we're considering is contacting them and getting together to see where they are on it."
The city has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in recent years upgrading its treatment plants and sewer collection system. Following the 2009 spill, Craver said the city hired an engineering firm that identified short term, mid-range and long-term needs. City council has approved funding for numerous citywide infrastructure projects, including $6 million during Monday night's monthly meeting. No mention of any of the city's efforts to improve its wastewater infrastructure is made by the SELC in its press release.
"We would love to have had some of these projects done well before now but we can't do them any faster than the state approves them," Craver said. "I never pretend to know what somebody else knows. [SELC representatives] haven't really asked us any questions about what we're doing about anything. They haven't asked me. They've just looked at some of the past records."
Craver said the city has had substantial enforcement action taken against it in recent years, but his office always responds to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources with updates on the progress of current improvement projects.
"The state knows we're not sitting on our hands," said Craver. "They know we're actively and feverishly pursuing the resolution of these issues. Certainly, we're going to tell [the SELC] our story and what we've done with our recent developments. They may not be aware of the things we've done. We've done a plethora of things."
Friday's SELC press release did not mention a July 11 wastewater spill of more than 1.3 million gallons as a result of last week's torrential rain. Heavy downpours led to pervasive flooding throughout the South Hamby Creek area, a tributary to the Yadkin River Basin. Craver called it "one of the most extensive infiltration events ever." A large percentage of the water that spilled, however, was rain, but the city still had to close six streets due to flooding
"We had rain for 21 of 22 days," Craver said. "Creeks are relatively full and that's where storm water goes. The water level on Randolph Street was as high as I've ever seen it. We've asked the question would any type of system have prevented something like this. I don't know."
Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or firstname.lastname@example.org.