The public wasn't told about a 3.5 million gallon sewage spill into the Haw River as quickly as the law requires because North Carolina environmental officials wanted to wait until the leak was stopped before it was disclosed.
Burlington officials said sewage that spilled from a broken pipe at a municipal wastewater treatment plant reached the river Monday night and was not stopped until Wednesday afternoon. Public notice of the spill was not issued until Thursday, nearly four days after the leak was identified.
State law requires water systems to report any spill of more than 1,000 gallons of untreated wastewater to media outlets in the affected within 48 hours of sewage reaching a river, stream or lake.
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokeswoman Susan Massengale said the agency told the City of Burlington it could delay the required disclosure beyond the 48 hours mandated by law.
Massengale said Division of Water Quality supervisor Corey Basinger "felt that it was important to make sure that the public press release accurately represented the amount of untreated waste that entered the river and so, especially under these adverse conditions, allowed the city some extra time to make sure of the report's accuracy. Instead of the report coming out Wednesday night, it was released some time on Thursday."
Massengale said Burlington officials quickly notified the state about the leak Monday night and the primary focus was on fixing the problem before a winter storm hit Tuesday. Officials said bad weather delayed the arrival of needed personnel and equipment.
"As the storm moved in and the temperature dropped, the effort focused on locating appropriate equipment to handle the situation, addressing the situation and limiting the spill, and keeping personnel safe as they worked in somewhat treacherous conditions," Massengale said.
Burlington water officials brought in a bypass pump to stop the sewage leak. The city did notify Pittsboro, a downstream community about 33 miles south of Burlington that gets its drinking water from the Haw River. The river then flows into Jordan Lake, a source of drinking water for Cary and Apex.
Burlington officials claimed there were no noticeable adverse environmental effects on the river from the massive spill and that the cold weather likely slowed the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.
The law requiring that such a spill be disclosed to the public within 48 hours does not grant discretion to state regulators to delay or defer that notification.
Hope Taylor, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Clean water for North Carolina, said the state allowing Burlington officials to wait beyond 48 hours is "outrageous."
"The reason for those notifications is public health and for anyone who could be impacted downstream to be aware," Taylor said. "We already think 48 hours is too long. To delay that further just for the trivial reason of not knowing the precise amount of the spill is really ridiculous."