This past Halloween the streets of the Eagle Creek Subdivision in Moyock, in Currituck County, teemed with trick-or-treaters, their buckets and bags filled with candy.
“People were saying, ‘What’s that smell?’” Stephanie Harlow an Eagle Creek resident, told Policy Watch. “‘It smells like a zoo.’”
The stench was wafting from raw sewage that had ponded in the roadside ditches, also known as swales. Eagle Creek’s sewage system, an intricate maze of pumps and pipes and pits, had failed for the fourth consecutive day, funneling sewage into people’s toilets and showers. To keep their homes from becoming cesspools, owners had no choice but to open their clean out valves and allow the sewage to escape.
“On Halloween night people were peeing in their yards because they couldn’t flush their toilets,” another neighbor said.
Although outages have occasionally disrupted residents’ lives for nearly 20 years, they’ve been especially acute over the past 14 months. Homeowner Christy Hutson has kept a log showing that since Sept. 19, 2020, the sewer system has been down for 76 days — more than two months. Of those outages, 53 affected the entire neighborhood of more than 420 homes. On the other 23 days the system was down at individual houses.
Based in Virginia Beach, Va., Sandler Utilities owns the sewage system and the wastewater treatment plant to which it flows; Envirolink, a North Carolina company with a mixed track record, manages the system on Sandler’s behalf.
State records from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Utilities Commission show Sandler has repeatedly failed to address the long-standing sewage issues. No amount of fines — more than $63,000 over the past year — legal orders, or court filings have compelled the company to fix the system.
Sandler representatives did not respond to a request for an interview.
Meanwhile, Currituck County officials claim they have no authority over Sandler because it is a private company, regulated by the state.
“There is no one to advocate for us,” said Gary Lickfeld, who has lived in Eagle Creek for nearly 20 years.
The website for Eagle Creek touts the community as “the next place you will want to call home … offering residents “the perfect blend of conveniences,” including an 18-hole golf course and a middle school.
Sandler brothers Art and Steven built Eagle Creek in 1999. Its location near the Virginia border and the Norfolk Naval Station made it ideal for active and retired military.
Sewage is not the Sandlers’ expertise, but rather a sideline from their real estate business. Eagle Creek is one of dozens and dozens of developments the Sandlers have built in the Southeast, including many in and around Raleigh. Their real estate deals have amassed them a fortune and a perch on the high rungs of Virginia society; they paid the city of Virginia Beach $5 million for naming rights to the Sandler Arts Center. (The Sandler company also lost a fortune during the housing crisis, owing banks more than $1 billion, according to court records.)
While Eagle Creek looked promising from a convenience standpoint, the community was also built on a swamp. It’s possible to install a sewer system on a swamp, but it’s expensive, and like any infrastructure, must be maintained.
And according to state records, as well as people with knowledge of the system, the sewer has been allowed to degrade for more than a decade. Paul Leone lives in Eagle Creek and installed the sewer system 20 years ago. “The bones of it are good,” Leone told Policy Watch. “But it’s not been maintained.”
Records from the NC Utilities Commission, which regulates private water companies, backs up Leone’s statements. Documents show that in 2015 Sandler requested a 31% rate hike — equivalent to more than $60 a month per household for sewer service. At the time, many residents testified about the poor service. Lickfeld testified that “waste backed up into bathtubs and flowed from under the toilet on the bathroom floor.”
The Public Staff, which represents consumers before the commission, wrote that, “the overall quality of service provided by Sandler to its customers in Eagle Creek is only marginally adequate.”
The commission eventually granted a rate increase of 15%, half of what Sandler had requested, and ordered the company to make significant upgrades to the sewer system.
But that didn’t happen.
The situation reached a critical point a year ago, when volunteers from NC Baptist Mission Men hauled in portable toilets, washers and dryers, and showers for residents to use — during a pandemic.
“We couldn’t leave the house,” said one resident. “It was unsanitary. We had no sewer — at the worst time.”
In correspondence with the Utilities Commission earlier this year, Sandler representatives cited an extensive list of alleged improvements. However, the public staff found the company’s actions “ineffective,” according to commission documents.
That ineffectiveness has resulted in a public health crisis. Within the past 18 months, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued four Notices of Violation and fined Sandler more than $62,000 for water quality violations. Treated wastewater, also known as effluent, from the sewage treatment plant is sprayed on the Eagle Creek golf course to irrigate it. In October 2020, records show wastewater contained levels of fecal coliform bacteria more than 15 times legal limits.
Water samples from a ditch on Eagleton Circle contained bacteria from fecal matter “that were too numerous to count,” according to court records. In January 2021, fecal coliform levels were 100 times higher than legally allowed, along with exceedances of nitrogen and ammonia.
DEQ fined Sandler another $1,200 this year for failing to keep legally required sampling records.
In response, Sandler Utilities argued the company “is committed to operating this system in a responsive manner,” wrote Brittney Willis, project manager of Sandler Utilities to the DEQ in September. Willis wrote that Sandler had spent more than $530,000 over the past year to upgrade the system, “without the prospect of recouping these expenditures.”
“Sandler has limited resources and has nonetheless invested heavily to improve the operations for the customers to company with environmental mandates,” she wrote. “We’re requesting the civil penalties to be waived.” DEQ did not waive the penalties.
The letter was dated Sept. 7, 2021. Two days prior and on the day after, Christy Hutson’s log shows the entire system was down.
The situation in Eagle Creek illustrates the convoluted nature of many private water systems, making it difficult to know who is accountable and for what.
Initially Sandler hired Enviro-Tech to operate the sewer system on its behalf. About 18 months ago, Envirolink bought Enviro-Tech and assumed responsibility for operating the Eagle Creek system.
Based in Wake County, Envirolink manages 400 wastewater and water systems, both private and public. Many of these utilities are troubled. Sometimes, particularly with public utilities, there are too few customers to pay for needed system upgrades and systems fail. In other instances, private companies, like Sandler Utilities, have not invested in maintenance and improvements, cutting corners to earn greater profits.
Envirolink President Mike Myers said Sandler has “not been paying us,” for the work at Eagle Creek. “We’ve had to make significant demands over the past week.”
Envirolink has not been cited by DEQ for any violations, but many systems they manage have been. A review of DEQ enforcement records shows that at least 15 systems that Envirolink manages have racked up 90 violations since 2018. These violations accounted for more than $91,000 in fines.
Envirolink manages the public Moyock Regional Water System, which serves parts of Currituck County. That system accumulated 20 violations in 2018, before Envirolink took over. Since then, Myers said, the plant’s performance has improved but is still not compliant. Moyock has totaled 23 violations since 2019 and received fines of more than $35,000.
Even when there haven’t been violations, some municipalities have been unhappy with Envirolink’s service. In Bailey, media reports from last month quote town commissioners as saying they wanted to break their maintenance contract with Envirolink over poorly executed repairs. Myers said the contract has since been extended.
Earlier this year, many residents in Spring Hope complained to elected officials about Envirolink and its role in line breaks and low water pressure that forced the town to impose a boil water advisory for several days.
Myers said of the 400 water and sewer systems the company manages, “We’ve been able to maintain or improve and bring into compliance 99% of them,” he said. “Ultimately we want to get the utility in a better place than we got involved.”
The mess persists
More than 25 residents gathered at the Eagle Creek Golf event center last weekend to share their experiences with Policy Watch. It was the 10th consecutive day either all or part of the neighborhood sewer system was down. One woman said she had washed her hair in a bucket that morning. Another resident said a house guest had to “relieve himself” off the home’s back deck because the toilet wasn’t working.
Outside, raw sewage pooled in the swales along Green View Road. Envirolink workers were prying open pit lids apparently to try to fix the problem.
Currituck County Attorney Ike McRee told Policy Watch in a phone interview this week that local government has limited authority over Sandler because it is a private entity regulated by the state. However, a Policy Watch review of the county ordinance shows that there could be at least one avenue for local officials to pursue.
One provision prohibits any nuisance that is “detrimental to public health.” McRee, who is also serving as interim county manager, said that since residents are opening the clean-out valves on their homes, technically they are causing the nuisance. “And we don’t want to cite the homeowners,” he said.
But that’s not the only source of raw sewage flowing into the neighborhood. “Pits” — 40-gallon waste collection tanks that each serve two homes are another. When the level of waste within the pit reaches a certain level, a valve opens and a vacuum is supposed to pull that material into the sewer line and on from there to the treatment plant.
Homeowners are liable for the line from the house to the pit. But the pit itself is the utility’s responsibility — and many of those pits have failed, according to state records. Roughly 100 are “below grade,” meaning they are prone to flooding.
Vacuum system and pit failures have resulted in sewage overflows, according to state utility and environmental records, which clearly place the onus on Sandler as the responsible party. It would seem to follow that if Sander is responsible for pit overflows, it could be held responsible for nuisances they create.
McRee did not respond to a follow up email seeking clarification about his claim.
McRee said the county could declare a state of emergency, and bring in toilets, laundry facilities and showers, similar to what the Baptist Men volunteers did last year. That would be expensive, he said, with no guarantee that Sandler would reimburse the county. And since Sandler recently agreed to purchase new parts and repair the valves, the crisis could soon be over, McRee said.
A consent judgment between DEQ and Sandler, effective last July, notes that “the current state of the collection system presents an ongoing threat …”
The judgment requires Sandler to submit written plans for system upgrades and operator training. It also requires Sandler to “maintain the collection system that prevents discharge of waste onto land or surface waters.”
Myers said Envirolink plans to buy the system from Sandler; that will require authorization from the state Utilities Commission, including a public hearing. “We explained to Sandler they shouldn’t be in the utility business. Once the state approves transfer we’ll make the improvements as fast as we can.”
Just this week Sandler agreed to install monitoring systems and make other improvements to keep the system from failing.
Stu Schwartz, an Eagle Creek resident, said he is hesitant to believe the problem will be fixed under Envirolink, at least not soon. “Every time it seems like behind us it pops up,” he said. “It’s been going on for so long.”