Durham County

What turned Ellerbee Creek orange?

City officials have investigated a report of part of Ellerbee Creek turning orange with an oil-like sheen on top. Pictured is the creek on Tuesday.
City officials have investigated a report of part of Ellerbee Creek turning orange with an oil-like sheen on top. Pictured is the creek on Tuesday. vbridges@newsobserver.com

City officials think the substance that turned part of Ellerbee Creek an oily orange last week may have been due to a city contractor’s mistake.

A city investigation found a city contractor improperly rerouted water meant to go to the city’s sanitary sewer system to a stormwater line, which flows into the creek. Contractor Crowder Construction was working at the Williams Water Treatment Plant on Hillandale Road.

City officials started looking into the issue Thursday, June 15, after receiving a report of the creek’s discoloration on the city’s stormwater hotline, where people can report pollution. The roughly 20-mile-long creek flows into Falls Lake, Raleigh’s primary drinking water supply.

Patrick Hogan, a city water quality technician, said the substance resembled a naturally occurring iron-oxide bacteria rarely found in a flowing stream.

Hogan walked the creek and found a break in the color near an outfall pipe, he said. He looked at maps of the drainage network, which led him to the treatment plant and the improperly routed pipe.

In late April, city contractors put in a temporary line that rerouted material from the city’s sanitary sewer system to the stormwater line, said Vicki Westbrook, assistant director of the city's Water Management Department.

John McIntyre, operations manager for Crowder Construction, described the situation as an honest mistake. As soon as the problem was identified last week, they immediately fixed it.

​The company hasn’t been fined, but the city is required to report the incident to the state, city officials said.

The improperly connected line discharged liquid from a basin at the treatment plant that uses coagulants and gravity to remove suspended solids from water. The discharge, which flows through a pipe at the top of the basin, is typically clear, but may have a small amount of residual coagulants, Westbrook said.

Hogan did a visual inspection of the creek and didn’t see any dead fish.

The basin’s liquid, which is supposed to be routed to sanitary sewer system, is discharged about once a week and is mingled with groundwater that is pumped out from an ongoing construction area.

It’s not clear why the issue only showed up now if the pipe had been connected since April, city officials said.

To complicate the investigation, the orange substance has also been seen upstream of the plant, Westbrook said.

It’s hard to tell exactly what causes a problem if they don’t see it being dumped in the creek, city officials said.

City officials hadn’t seen the creek turn orange before and it affected from a quarter-mile to a half-mile of the creek, they said.

By Monday, the discoloration was gone, they said.

That could mean that the oxygen levels had changed, that the substance was washed downstream or that it got buried by sediment, said Michelle Woolfolk, with the city’s Stormwater Services.

City officials will do one more follow-up, but will then close the case, Woolfolk said.

Chris Dreps, executive director of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, said illegal discharges into the creek aren’t unusual.

“Something like this really happens once every couple of months,” he said. “Some are less significant. Some are more significant.”

This instance, however, shows the power of people to make a difference in Durham’s ongoing battle to address water quality by reporting concerns.

City officials found 84 pollution sources in the Ellerbee Creek watershed from October 2014 to September 2015, which is 42 percent of the 196 illegal discharges they discovered in 14 city creeks and rivers.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

How to report pollution

▪ Call 911 for assistance with any life threatening emergencies or to report major toxic/hazardous chemical spills.

▪ Report sewer overflows or blockages to the Department of Water Management at 919-560-4344 or Durham One Call 919-560-1200.

▪ Report erosion and sediment problems with construction sites to Durham City/County Stormwater and Erosion Control at 919-560-0735.

▪ To report other water quality pollution concerns or illegal dumping into storm drains, ditches, and streams, use the online reporting form (https://durhamnc.gov/FormCenter/Public-Works-14/Stormwater-Pollution-Reporting-Form-62), or call the Stormwater Hotline at 919-560-SWIM (7946), or email StormwaterQuality@durhamnc.gov.