State has imposed a moratorium on the Siler City facility for chronic noncompliance, preventing new sewer connections for new industry, housing
D ownstream from the Siler City wastewater treatment plant, sickness had beset the Rocky River.
At least 30 fish, including the Eastern shiner and some species of chub, “were observed with lesions and appeared stressed,” Tim Savidge, an environmental scientist, wrote in his field notes to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “Gasping, irregular swimming, etc.”
On that cloudy, warm day last October, Savidge, who works for Three Oaks Engineering, and his team were conducting a freshwater mussels survey when he observed an even more disturbing phenomenon. “Large concentrations of poultry organs, gizzards, intestines, hearts,” he wrote, were splayed over the river bottom and at the base of the banks where the water level was low.
“It was too much for fish bait,” Savidge told Policy Watch.” And it wasn’t concentrated in one place. As we were moving up the river, we’d see eight or nine parts, then another pile. It seemed kind of unusual.”
The provenance of the chicken parts is unknown. Mountaire’s poultry processing facility is also upstream from where the entrails were found. A company spokeswoman told Policy Watch that “no one from the town or the state have been in contact with us about it. We do not discharge chicken parts to the town’s wastewater facility.”
Siler City’s wastewater treatment plant is an unlikely source for the organs – they would not pass through the filter system – but it could be responsible for the sick fish. Since 2019, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has cited the plant for nearly 80 violations, including exceedances for fecal coliform, nitrogen, ammonia and aquatic toxicology standards.
In just the last two years, DEQ has fined Siler City more than $118,000 related to these and other violations. The plant has been designated by the EPA as a “significant non-complier.”
Many of the violations stem from the effluent the wastewater treatment plant receives from Mountaire, one of the largest poultry processors in the nation. Since the slaughterhouse opened three years ago, it has sent more than 1 million gallons of effluent per day to the plant. In turn, the plant discharges treated wastewater into Loves Creek, which feeds the Rocky River less than a half-mile downstream.
“Mountaire is bombarding them with waste,” said Connie Allred, a founder of the environmental group Friends of the Rocky River. She lives in Siler City, along the waterway. “Mountaire makes money on the back of the environment, public health and safety.”
Siler City’s inability to rein in pollution from Mountaire has far-reaching environmental, public health and economic ramifications: Parts of the Rocky River and Loves Creek are on the federally impaired waters list because aquatic habitats have been damaged. People also use these waterways for kayaking, wading and fishing. Farther downstream, the Rocky River joins the Deep and the Haw to form the headwaters of the Cape Fear River, the drinking water supply for the City of Sanford.
In May, conditions at the Siler City wastewater treatment plant and in its discharge were so severe and the violations so chronic, that DEQ imposed a statutory moratorium on new sewer connections.
No new housing developments can tap in. No new industry, including a computer chip maker that state lawmakers are trying to woo with $57.5 million in incentives in the most recent state budget. No new connections for prospective tenants of the Chatham-Siler City megasite.
Of the 120 wastewater treatment plants under DEQ’s purview, just nine have a statutory moratorium.
As for the mystery of the dying fish and sundry poultry parts, it remains unsolved.
Savidge said he called DEQ’s Raleigh Regional Office and left a message on the same day that he spotted the problem, on Oct. 4, 2021. No one called him back, he said. A DEQ spokeswoman said the agency has no record of the call. Wildlife Resources didn’t learn of the problem until April, when Savidge entered his field notes.
By then, the evidence was gone.
W hen Mountaire announced it would buy the former Townsend processing plant in 2016, Siler City officials rejoiced. The town’s economic fortunes had suffered after two chicken slaughterhouses — Townsend and Pilgrim’s Pride — had closed.
Buoyed by $1.5 million in incentives from Chatham County and $800,000 from Siler City, Mountaire would create more than 1,250 jobs and contribute millions of dollars to the region’s economy, the company said in a press release when the plant opened in April 2019.
“To be good stewards of all the assets God has entrusted to us is part of our Mountaire creed,” company executive vice president Dee Ann English said at the time.
(While English was lauding the company’s stewardship, Mountaire was facing a class-action suit in Delaware over groundwater contamination that residents say afflicted them with chronic illnesses. The company last year agreed to pay $65 million to settle the litigation. A separate federal consent decree requires Mountaire to spend $140 million to upgrade and maintain its treatment plant.)
In Siler City, behind the scenes, town officials and state regulators knew that Mountaire, in slaughtering 1.4 million birds each week, would significantly increase pollutant loads – nitrogen, ammonia, phosphorus and fecal coliform – to the wastewater treatment plant, which was ill-equipped to handle them.
Officials also expected that without a wastewater treatment plant capable of removing or significantly reducing levels of these contaminants, they would enter – and harm – Loves Creek and downstream waters.
“Allowing the town’s nitrogen load to rise for the next three to four years is less than ideal,” wrote Linda Culpepper, then the director of the Division of Water Resources, in 2019. “Allowing it to exceed historic levels is not acceptable. We cannot ignore predicted increases in nitrogen loads [that will happen] until upgrades are complete.”
One of the many pollutants leaving Mountaire and the wastewater treatment plant, Total Nitrogen is of particular concern. There are many types of nitrogen, such as ammonia, nitrates and nitrites. Total Nitrogen is the sum of those types. High levels are toxic to fish, mussels and, in some cases, even humans.
Siler City’s wastewater treatment plant had always struggled with Total Nitrogen, which for years had regularly polluted Loves Creek. Only after Townsend and Pilgrim’s Pride closed, and Total Nitrogen loads from those operations stopped, did contaminant levels in Loves Creek drop — by 70% — state records show.
Nonetheless, Siler City didn’t require Mountaire to install pretreatment equipment that would have reduced the amount entering the wastewater treatment plant. It was an expense the company could have well afforded: Mountaire’s gross revenues in 2019 were $2.1 billion; last year they increased to $2.4 billion.
Instead, the town’s wastewater treatment plant, funded by taxpayer dollars, has borne the burden of removing the contaminants. Siler City officials – a half dozen town commissioners, the town manager, the public utilities director and the wastewater treatment plant superintendent – did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Only last year did Siler City limit the amount of Total Nitrogen that could leave the Mountaire facility. DEQ has also capped how much Total Nitrogen the wastewater treatment plant can discharge into Loves Creek, but the amounts are still astronomical: 182,646 pounds per year through Dec. 31.
Once the wastewater treatment is upgraded – a year and half behind schedule – its annual Total Nitrogen discharge will be limited to 54,800 pounds in 2025.
To meet those benchmarks Mountaire will have to limit its nitrogen as well. Bassett, the company spokeswoman, told Policy Watch in an email that “we consistently look at ways to improve our sustainability efforts and are in the midst of designing a wastewater system upgrade.”
However, nitrogen isn’t the only pollutant harming Loves Creek and the Rocky River. Siler City’s wastewater treatment plant has consistently blown past its average weekly and monthly limits for several other contaminants. This includes exceedances of 1,220% for ammonia and 1,093% for fecal coliform, bacteria that is found in human and animal waste, according to EPA data.
As recently as July 25, DEQ again cited the wastewater treatment plant for violating its “duty to mitigate” pollutants earlier this spring. Siler City could be fined as much as $25,000 per day.
If DEQ fines Siler City even a portion of that amount, the total penalties assessed since 2019 could approach $200,000. That is nearly twice the amount – $105,000 – the town spent on the first phase of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade, town records show.
“For Siler City, the fines don’t seem to be a deterrent,” Allred of the Friends of the Rocky River said. “And Siler City has to work with Mountaire, so having an adversarial position with them is problematic. This used to be the state’s responsibility. Now it’s the town’s.”
Local governments are in a difficult spot. DEQ issues discharge permits to, and regulates, wastewater treatment plants. The governments are responsible for regulating their industrial customers.
Yet industrial customers actually have the upper hand. They pay fees and taxes that help local governments stay afloat. They create jobs, even low-paying and physically demanding ones, like those at Mountaire. For a small and low-wealth town like Siler City, they must penalize the very entities on which their economic well-being depends.
(Even larger cities have encountered similar problems. Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant has been fined by the state – and sued by environmental nonprofits – for its discharge of the carcinogen, 1,4-Dioxane, into a drinking water supply. That chemical compound is being released by one or more major industrial customers, which the city is responsible for regulating.)
Siler City town records filed with DEQ show wastewater treatment plant officials did cite Mountaire for eight violations unrelated to nitrogen in 2021. No fines were listed in the town’s annual report to DEQ.
However, Siler City gave Mountaire a pass on several other violations. DEQ cited the town last year for failing to enforce pollutant limits on the company, records show. The town failed to determine that Mountaire was “in significant noncompliance.” Nor did it penalize the company, a violation of town’s permit, according to DEQ records.
This spring, the company failed to notify wastewater treatment plant staff that it changed its disinfectant from bleach to peroxide. When peroxide entered the treatment plant, it killed all the beneficial microorganisms that help break down the waste, state records show. “Mixed liquor” — raw wastewater and activated sludge that are key to the treatment process — “turned septic,” state records say.
Wastewater treatment plant superintendent Brittany York wrote to DEQ this month that utilities officials had “discovered” Mountaire had also been sending high amounts of chlorine to the facility. The town has since asked the company to begin monitoring and decrease its levels of chlorine in the discharge.
“No one is fixing the problem,” said Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. SELC represented the Friends of Rocky River in contesting the wastewater treatment plant’s discharge permit. “It’s a vicious cycle with a lot of finger-pointing.”
B roken equipment. Heavy rainfall that overwhelms the system. Basins nearly full of sludge. Slug loads of iron sent to the wastewater treatment plant, from the town’s drinking water plant – also a chronic violator.
In written correspondence with DEQ, Siler City officials regularly explain why the wastewater treatment plant continues to violate the law.
All of it speaks to a wastewater treatment plant on the brink.
Planned upgrades are 18 months behind schedule. The town has justified the delays based on pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and other “unforeseen circumstances,” according to state records, and won’t be finished until December 31, 2024.
When finished, the improved plant will accept 6 million gallons of wastewater per day, up from the current 4 million gallon per day limit, and will include other pollutant controls, at an estimated cost of $21 million, according to 2019 board of commissioners minutes.
Siler City has cobbled together enough to cover the cost of the plant upgrade and other sewer system improvements: a total of $9.6 million in grants from the Golden Leaf Foundation, the state Department of Commerce, Chatham County, a state budget allocation and the USDA. The town also received a $14.5 million low-interest loan from the USDA, board minutes show.
Not all of the money has yet been released. For example, the Golden Leaf Foundation has not yet given Siler City the $2 million award to the WWTP, according to a foundation spokeswoman. Funds are available for improvements and expansion of the facility which will include engineering and construction expenses.
Chatham County Commissioner Diana Hale, who lives in Siler City along the Rocky River, said she is “very troubled by the number of violations” that led to the moratorium, both from an environmental perspective and an economic one. “The investment that the state and town is about to make at the megasite – it could jeopardize a tenant choosing to locate there.”
An unnamed computer chip manufacturer plans to build in Siler City, spurred by $57 million in economic incentives included in the recent state budget. Chip plants use enormous amounts of water; this facility would connect to Asheboro’s system. However, the manufacturer’s discharge — millions of gallons of wastewater — would flow to the Siler City WWTP.
New housing for employees of these businesses is also at a standstill unless those developments rely on private septic systems. (The state did approve sewer connections for a 72-unit development in early June because the application was submitted before the effective date of the moratorium.)
As soon as DEQ imposed the moratorium “Siler City took immediate steps” and hired engineering consultants to develop a plan to return to compliance, according to a memo provided by Town Clerk Jenifer Johnson, the only Siler City official to respond to Policy Watch. It includes plans for the town to “more closely monitor discharge” by significant industrial users – Mountaire – and increase fines and surcharges for violations.
If the town successfully reduces its pollutant loads into Loves Creek and the Rocky River, DEQ could lift the moratorium. That would allow Siler City to accept more wastewater to serve new development.
Siler City could also enter into a Special Order By Consent with DEQ, according to the memo, one of the non-punitive options of last resort for facilities that can’t comply with their discharge limits. There are a dozen wastewater treatment plants with these orders, according to 2021 state documents.
Why it took the moratorium and a possible Special Order By Consent to spur town officials to fix the problem is unclear. As early as 2019, town officials knew the wastewater treatment plant’s decrepitude was problematic. That year, developers for the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing megasite gave back to the town a quarter of its planned sewer discharge so the project would not eventually overwhelm the system.
A review of three and half years’ of Siler City board of commissioners minutes show no record of a public discussion of the violations or the fines.
Meanwhile, the health of Loves Creek and the Rocky River remains poor. According to DEQ notes logged this year, “mussels placed in Loves Creek have died. Reasons are still unknown.”