The story of workers leaving the flood-threatened Johnston County sewage treatment plant one night in October 2016 reads like a environmental thriller.
Several days before Hurricane Matthew hit, the workers had started moving what they could out of the way of the potentially rising water. The last two workers left about 10:30 the night of Oct. 9, as the swollen Neuse River spilled over the sewage plant’s flood protection dike and over the road leading to safety.
“Once it started coming in, we left,” said J. Dan Wall, the Johnston utility department’s assistant director for treatment.
Workers signed a message for the plant before they all left. “Good bye, WWTP. We gave it our best!! We will be back.”
When they were able to return days later, workers discovered a catastrophe of flooded tanks and buildings and damaged equipment. It took 24 hours to pump the floodwater out.
About 71 million gallons of wastewater spilled from the county plant in the week after the hurricane, according to state records.
Johnston County learned a lot from Hurricane Matthew about how to handle disasters, but one lesson was primary for the county’s former utilities director Tim Broome.
“Do not locate a (wastewater treatment plant) in a flood way or 100-year flood plain,” Broome wrote in a subsequent presentation on flood damage and recovery.
Not enough money for upgrades
The deluge that comes from hurricane downpours and river flooding pushes sewage systems past their limits. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, with their heavy rains and record-setting river heights, hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated and partly treated sewage burst from manholes. The sewage flowed from plants and leaked from pump stations.
Reports from disaster areas after Hurricane Matthew detail the spills from sewage plants in Clinton, St. Pauls, Pinetops and other towns.
About 121 million gallons of sewage spilled from more than 200 treatment systems after Hurricane Florence, The News & Observer reported.
Smaller communities need help in preparing their wastewater treatment plant for extreme weather, according to a report on the state’s response to Florence released this year by Zurich North America, Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance and ISET-International.
“Failure to do so could result in increased wastewater spills to state rivers and streams, with associated implications for the environment, including riverine and coastal fisheries, and downstream communities,” the authors wrote.
Some communities, like Johnston County, have decided the best step is to eventually stop treating wastewater in a location that’s a short walk from a river bank.
“The plant is surrounded by floodplain, “ said Chandra Cox Farmer, Johnson County’s current utilities director. “The dikes are the only thing that protect us.”
But relocating sewage treatment is expensive. Even for fast-growing Johnston County, it’s a long-term goal. It will be 20 to 30 years before the county can transfer its sewer operations to higher ground as part of an expansion plan.
In the meantime, the county is working on raising the height of the flood protection dike with the help of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sewage leaks in Selma
Having sewage treatment plants in low-lying areas makes engineering sense, Lawrence B. Cahoon, a biology professor at UNC-Wilmington, said in a telephone interview. The systems of pipes and pumps rely on gravity to do a lot of the work in getting sewage to treatment plants.
It also makes many sewage plants in the Piedmont vulnerable to flooding.
“It’s a really serious problem for any decent-sized town when you’re relying on central sewer,” he said.
State officials are meeting with local governments this year to talk about their climate risks. A report due in early 2020 will identify ways state agencies can support communities that want to adapt to the effects of climate change. Gov. Roy Cooper called for the report as part of an executive order issued last year.
Old, crumbling pipes running under the state’s cities and towns contribute to the massive sewer overflows triggered by extreme storms.
Stormwater seeps into cracked sewer pipes, overwhelming the machinery that pumps waste to sewer plants, and adding to the volume plants must treat.
“The gravity systems in the Piedmont have a lot of places where water can get into the system,” said Jim Gregson, deputy director at the Division of Water Resources at the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Most inland counties were spared the worst of Hurricane Dorian his year, but enough rain fell in Johnston County to cause a 640,000-gallon sewage spill in the town of Selma from a pump station with a history of overflows.
Millions of gallons of sewage have escaped that Selma pump station over the years, including an 8.8 million gallon spill during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, a 1.25 million gallon spill in April 2017, and a 339,000 gallon spill in September 2018, according to state records.
The town conducted tests to search for broken pipes and has applied for grants to replace them, former interim town manager Mike McLauren said in a telephone interview this summer.
Selma is also trying to figure out how much it will have to raise rates to pay for improvements.
“Now we’re going to try to dig deeper as to what those costs are, and more importantly, how we’re going to fund it,” he said.
Selma has a population of 6,900 people and 2,450 sewer customers. The median household income in Selma is about $29,000, according to the U.S. Census — far less than the state median income of more than $50,000.
Utility rates in many small towns aren’t high enough to pay for long-term building and maintenance, according to the 2017 statewide water and wastewater master plan, which estimated that long-term construction and maintenance for sewer treatment could cost up to $11 billion. That plan considered how to create viable water and wastewater systems and did not deal specifically with responses to disasters.
Money available for repairs doesn’t match the size of problems in towns that have lost industries and whose populations are shrinking.
“There’s just not the rate base to maintain it at a high level,” said Peter Raabe, a conservation director for American Rivers. “Many were constructed with grant money. As time goes on, they’re starting to wear out.”
The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 included a construction grants program for municipal wastewater treatment projects. The grant program was replaced with a state revolving loan fund in 1987.
Raabe praised Johnston County for its intent to move its sewer operations. Treatment plant operators realize they have to move out of the floodplain, but capital improvement plans work on 30-year time frames, he said.
“It’s basically a long-term strategy to get that infrastructure out of the floodplain,” he said.
Plants near the Neuse River
While shrinking towns are struggling to pay for the systems they have, growing towns are looking to build more.
The town of Clayton is planning to build a new wastewater treatment plant on town-owned property near the Neuse. The plant would be outside special flood hazard areas, Clayton’s communications director Stacy Beard wrote in an email.
“We want to be able to withstand a flooding event and minimize damage so we can quickly recover from disruptions in service,” she wrote. “In fact, permitting and funding sources would require minimizations of flood impacts.”
Gregson of DEQ said in a telephone interview that to get permits, plants must have two feet of protection from 100-year floods.
More stringent protections would require a rules change and approval from the Environmental Management Commission, DEQ spokeswoman Sarah Young said in an email.
Rain dumped on North Carolina towns in Hurricanes Matthew and Florence exceeded levels expected once every 1,000 years, according to NOAA. The state doesn’t have the authority to require plants be built outside a FEMA flood hazard area, and FEMA doesn’t map 1,000-year flood zones, Young wrote.
Disasters sometimes lead to major moves. FEMA helped Kinston shut down a wastewater treatment plan near the Neuse River after Hurricane Floyd swamped it in 1999.
Kinston’s Peachtree sewage plant had become a symbol of persistent sewer problems in the years leading up to Hurricane Floyd. The plant’s history included unreported spills and a former plant superintendent’s conviction for altering records to cover up pollution, The News & Observer reported at the time.
After the hurricane, then-FEMA director James Lee Witt called Peachtree “an environmental embarrassment.” FEMA and the state committed to spend $32.1 million, with the federal government picking up 90% of the cost, to help expand a sewage plant farther from the Neuse and shut down Peachtree.
Without such big commitments, the need for repairs and improvements often leave local officials scratching for money.
The state legislature gives some communities money from the state budget for sewer upgrades. State and federal grants and loans are available through application to the State Water Infrastructure Authority. The US Department of Agriculture has grant and loan money available for sewer system upgrades in rural communities.
The state Division of Water Infrastructure is lending Johnston County about $55 million from a revolving loan fund for the new wastewater treatment plant, Farmer, Johnston’s utilities director, said in an email.
Johnston County utilities administrators talked to FEMA about getting federal money to help relocate the plant, but is getting the higher dike instead.
Wall, Johnston’s treatment manager, said the plant had multiple visits from FEMA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representatives after Hurricane Matthew. He said those meetings were pleasant, but the county couldn’t get a federal grant to move the plant because it had only been flooded once.
“If it had flooded once prior, they would have paid to move,” he said.
Farmer said the required federal financial analysis needed more data than was available from a one-time inundation. And, she said, there was no way for the economic analysis to account for spills from the plant while it was disabled.
“We were essentially down for a week,” she said. “We diverted what we could. What couldn’t be (diverted) was essentially a spill into the Neuse River. It’s an impact. There was no great way to take that into account.”
In an email, a FEMA spokesman said the agency could not comment without more details about the Johnston plant.
While Johnston is still working on growing the barrier around its plant, the town of Trenton in Jones County this year got relief from its problem of repeated sewer overflows.
After years of planning, Trenton opened a new sewer plant this year that replaces one that sat in a flood way and in the path of high water from the Trent River.
Glenn Spivey, Trenton’s town manager and clerk, recalled flooding problems back in 1999 with Hurricane Floyd that got worse with big storms that followed.
“Floyd got us bad,” Spivey said. “Matthew got us, then Florence got us even worse,” he said. “That’s why we were working our heart out to get this out of the flood zone and get it on high ground.”
Trenton received $3.25 million in state money to build a bigger plant farther from the river.
Now, Spivey said, they don’t have to worry about sewer plant overflows.
“Everything is out of the floodplain,” he said.