On-Site Sewage Treatment Plants Studied at Workshop
County officials plunged into the subject of on-site sewage treatment plants at a workshop Wednesday and learned details of a new and developing technology.
They also learned not to use the term "package" plant and that it's probably not a good idea to turn ownership and management over to homeowners' associations.
Environmental issues and the legal complications of the inter-basin transfer permitting system were also reviewed.
"I tell my students this isn't rocket science, or brain surgery," said Dr. Mike Hoover, a soil science professor and Extension specialist at N.C. State University. "It's sewer science."
Moore County Planning Director Joey Raczkowski arranged the workshop after Planning Board members raised questions about the practicality of what is known as decentralized (on-site) wastewater collection treatment and disposal systems.
These are small sewer plants that, in the case of Moore County, have been proposed for major developments.
Dormie Club, a major subdivision being developed off N.C. 73, is the only development to receive approval for an on-site plant, but two other developers have proposed similar facilities for planned unit developments. So far, the Planned Unit Development (PUD) requests have not cleared the Planning Board.
Dormie Club, a golf-course and residential development, has 218 lots on a 646-acre tract near the intersection of N.C. 73 and Beulah Hill Church Road.
After the workshop, two Planning Board members said they were impressed with the extensive information presented, but Vice Chairwoman Kim VonCanon and Dave Kinney admitted that they still need more advice before making future decisions on similar requests.
Hoover was the first speaker at the workshop, attended by members of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, the planning panel, and staff members.
He told the gathering that technology is changing so rapidly today that he sees property approved for treatment facilities that would have been denied septic system permits 20 years ago.
He said he could not tell Moore County leaders what is best for their community but he could describe options from which they could choose. He said on-site plants, if properly installed, can work efficiently if they are regularly inspected and well managed. That management requires a certified operator, he said, adding that most such systems fail if they do not have a certified operator.
"One of my goals is to see people use their land in a way that is environmentally safe and that also protects the environment," he said.
Among the successful systems describ-ed is a school in Guilford County where an on-site plant uses stormwater collected from rooftop containers for flushing purposes.
"We don't need high-quality, expensive drinking water to flush toilets," Hoover said.
Hoover said the on-site plant can even be used at private homes, with the owner contracting with a certified operator to make regular inspections. He said the cost difference between decentralized on-site facilities and large centralized sewer systems can be significant.
Tony Jacobs, a soil scientist with Soil and Material Engineering, said developers, school administrators and other public entities often make the mistake of buying property for a specific purpose before they find out whether the soil is suitable for septic tanks or an on-site plant or any other sewage disposal system.
Jacobs said this is especially important in Moore County, where soil types vary widely, sometimes within a short distance.
He, too, had a success story. Jacobs described a golf course community in Mecklenburg County that stayed "lush and green" throughout the severe drought last year, despite poor soil and a water shortage. This was achieved through the use of wastewater for irrigation purposes, and it was all done without any infrastructure cost to the county, he said.
Mike Apke, an engineer and Pinehurst office manager for McGill & Associates, reviewed the state's inter-basin transfer (IBT) permitting system, which he called "complex, lengthy and expensive." McGill recently completed a comprehensive water study for the county.
Apke said it is extremely difficult to secure a certificate enabling a water system to transfer more than 2 million gallons of water a day from another river basin, but it can be done. He estimated that through hard, intense work, a certificate might be acquired within seven years, apparently the shortest period on record.
The process is so difficult that most entities try any other method if other options are available, he said.
Moore County is in a delicate position because of its location within two major river basins, Cape Fear and Lumber River, and one subbasin, Deep River. Ground water is not covered by the inter-basin transfer law, something that does not apply to the system of wells used in Pinehurst and other communities.
Apke said that the 2-million-gallon limit is strictly enforced on a daily calculation and does not represent an average for a month or a year.
The IBT system applies to wastewater treatment because sewer plants likewise make discharges into streams.
So far, Moore County has not had many dealings with the IBT system, but Apke warned that this is likely to change in the near future when the East Moore Water District is connected with the county system at Eastwood. The expected transfer is estimated at 1.1 million gallons a day, but that amount is expected to increase.
Apke said county leaders should not be alarmed but advised them to continue monitoring the situation. The state has an environmental review committee in place that is considering changes to the IBT law.
"We may be dealing with a whole new set of laws in a year or two," Apke said.
Fred Hobbs advised against turning on-site facilities over to homeowners' associations.
Hobbs is a principal in the Hobbs Upchurch & Associates engineering firm of Southern Pines, that has handled innumerable engineering projects for the county over the years.
Hobbs said ownership of these facilities by such associations is a thing of the past. He said these associations lack training, funding and experience and are difficult to regulate.
In addition, they endure frequent owner changes and, besides, management of sewer systems is not a function of a homeowners' association.
Instead, Hobbs said, the plant should be the legal ownership responsibility of the developer and recommended a contract with a professional licensed sewer plant operator to manage the facility. He made available examples of contracts that are legal and practical.
In some situations, grants might be available to help out, and Hobbs mentioned the North Carolina Rural Economic Center as one source of funding. He said that Little River Golf Club and Dormie Club have secured grants on the basis of creating permanent jobs in the community.
Hobbs said that developers should accept responsibility for on-site facilities as part of their property and must be responsible for more than provision of infrastructure. And he said that local governments should be actively involved by making sure the design, materials, aesthetics, cost, operation and maintenance details are properly covered. In other words, he said, local governments should treat such facilities as if they expect to be the owners at some point in the future.
Can Be Effective
In a segment presented by B.K. Barringer and David DeCaron, of Piedmont Design Associates, the differences between the centralized (government-owned) wastewater treatment system and on-site or septic systems were spelled out.
Although the central sewer system relieves the individual user of responsibility, the on-site system can be used effectively if well constructed and professionally managed, the engineers said.
They reported that about 50,000 new septic systems are installed yearly in North Carolina, where more than 1.5 million septic systems are already in use. It was estimated that 400 million gallons of effluent is discharged daily into groundwater.
The engineers said the technology is available to design decentralized on-site systems that can provide reliable treatment of wastewater for recycling, but the problem lies with the unwillingness of community leaders to break from old ideas and to pay the additional cost of requiring on-site inspections by environmental health personnel.
About 50 people attended the four-hour workshop at the Senior Enrichment Center.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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