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Local, state regulators dismiss group’s claims about septic overflows near Swepsonville


The city of Burlington is apparently not the only local authority to have found itself in the crosshairs of the Haw River Assembly.

Earlier this month, the Pittsboro-based advocacy group showered its vitriol on Alamance County’s health department about the overflow from residential septic system that’s situated across the Haw River from the municipal limits of Swepsonville.

According to a blog entry that appeared on the organization’s website on September 7, this “failed” septic system “has been dumping raw septic waste” into a drainage channel or ditch and “threatening to contaminate neighboring drinking water wells.”

The Haw River Assembly goes on to suggest that this runoff may have entered the nearby Haw River and made its way to Swepsonville’s River Park, “which had incredibly high E.coli levels last week following a rain event.”

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“We have spoken with Alamance County Health Department, who says they have been trying to address the situation since April,” the blog entry goes on to note before a sudden shift in its tone. “It is completely unacceptable that the county has knowingly allowed raw septic waste to reach the Haw for six months. [Emphasis in the original].”

With its meretricious expressions of outrage, the Haw River Assembly’s account of this septic catastrophe may seem to have a rather unsavory whiff of its own. It also differs considerably from the experiences of the local health department, whose environmental health section is tasked with regulating the septic systems that serve homes and businesses in rural parts of the county.

According to Rebecca Rosso, the environmental health section’s director, this septic tank at 1370 Geneva Albright Road has been one tough nut to crack despite her agency’s repeated attempts to staunch its periodic overflows.

“It’s not necessarily a failing septic system,” Rosso went on to explain in an interview Tuesday. “There’s excessive water going into the tank. So, what’s going on right now is that we’re following a systematic process to determine and diagnose the source of excessive water.”

Rather than simply “allowing” water seepage from the tank, Rosso insists that her agency has tried one approach after another in its struggle to bring the overflows to a halt.

“We have been working directly with the homeowners also with the septic installers, the septic product manufacturer,” she added. “We’ve been working with the DEQ and the state’s environmental health section, and over the many months we have tried many things…The homeowners have been very good to work with. We’ve rerouted their gutter drains; we’ve tried to make sure that water softener isn’t dumping extra water into the system, and made sure the AC condenser lines aren’t plumbed into the tank. We’ve looked at their toilet to make sure all of the components – the flappers and gaskets — are sealed property.”

Rosso conceded that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality sent an inspector out to the site at about the same time that the Haw River Assembly became interested in the matter.

“Based on their initial findings,” she added of the state agency, “they are not taking any action at this time.”

Rosso’s assertions are largely borne out by Ron Boone, an environmental program consultant for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality who actually visited the site earlier this month.

“I do not think there’s any contamination of the surface water or very little,” Boone explained in an interview Wednesday. “It’s obviously soaking into the soil however if there’s a downpour a real gully washer, it could carry it into the river. But by that time, the amount of contaminant is so low, it’s barely detectable.”

Boone added that the effluent’s dilution also casts doubt on the Haw River Assembly’s inference that the septic system may be responsible for E. coli contamination at Swepsonville River Park.

“I did not think that the contamination that the river assembly is measuring is coming from that home,” he insisted.

In its own account of the overflows, the Haw River Assembly puts a great deal of emphasis on the potential threat that the septic system could present to area wells. The organization adds that “neighboring community members” have repeatedly contacted the health department to share “serious concerns for the quality of their own drinking water wells.” It goes on to offer free water quality analysis to these concerned neighbors as an alternative to the health department’s tests, which would cost them $65 dollars a pop.

In response to these claims, Rosso contends that the prospect of well water contamination is unlikely, at best, due to the setbacks and spacing requirements that govern the placement of residential septic tanks. She added, however, that should anyone want their well water tested, her agency offers high-quality laboratory analysis at rates that compare favorably with private testing services.

In any event, Rosso insists that the environmental health section has been doing its best to attain the same outcome that the Haw River Assembly is also presumably seeking.
“We’re still trying to determine the source of the excess water,” she added. “But they’re pumping the excess water which keeps effluent from getting to surface.”

“Our job is public health protection,” Rosso continued, “so we want [what the assembly is seeking] as well.”

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