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Chatham water plant under scrutiny

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While a steady flow of new development proposals rolls through Chatham County's public process and county leaders pursue plans to expand the public water system to accommodate growth, the treatment plant that currently provides drinking water to 9,000 county residents is a source of continuing concern for state regulators. The plant, which treats and distributes water drawn from Jordan Lake, has racked up new regulatory violations, is the subject of a critical report by a state intervention team, and faces a potential $300-a-day fine for staffing inadequacies.

In September, October and November 2004, Chatham's plant was cited eight times for violating standards set by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, according to state records. All of the citations reflect monitoring and reporting errors, meaning the county either did not test water samples as required, or did the testing but did not turn in the paperwork. Those eight violations come on top of nine others that the treatment plant accumulated in the 12 months prior to September 2004.

Ongoing problems at the plant, including the earlier violations and numerous staffing and operational deficiencies over the last couple of years, came to light during public debate late last year over whether the county should spend $36 million to upgrade and expand its water system. (See "Are Chatham's pipe dreams all wet?"Independent Weekly. Oct. 27, 2004, www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-10-27/news2.html)

County leaders continue to assure residents that the water is safe to drink, and that progress is being made in addressing problems at the plant. While state regulators agree that the water meets safety standards and county officials are making some progress, a team of DENR water experts who spent a week examining the plant in great detail last month have identified a long list of what they label "performance limiting factors."

They ranked "policies and personnel" as the top-priority problem. The report also cites the chronic shortage of staff at the plant.

Staffing problems crop up throughout the list, with state regulators noting that employees generally lack experience (due to high turnover), are not trained adequately in the processes of testing water samples and operating and maintaining equipment, and are paid salaries too low to attract and maintain quality workers.

The plant also lacks basic documentation such as standard and emergency operations manuals and materials and tools such as critical spare parts, according to the report, which summarized the state's findings for county officials at a Dec. 9 meeting, following the state experts' week-long visit.

Bobby Whisnant, the DENR field engineer who is Chatham's liaison with the state, downplays the negative feedback in the evaluation.

"Those were just items that we recognized while doing the inspection--things we identified that could limit the plant," Whisnant says. "They have made some strides in the last six months."

One positive step Chatham has taken recently was hiring two new employees to fill key vacancies, Whisnant says. One has taken charge of the treatment plant as its new chief operator, and one will oversee the distribution system--the pipes and pumps that carry water from the plant to the customers. Those two positions, along with a third key job that remains vacant, are all closely monitored by the state, which certifies the credentials of each employee and sets rules such as requiring the chief plant operator to live within 50 miles of the plant in order to report quickly during a public health emergency.

Though two of the three jobs were filled last month, Whisnant says, the county has yet to complete the state paperwork associated with the hires. On Dec. 29, DENR officials notified the county that it faces a potential fine of $100 per day per position until the jobs are filled and the paperwork completed. DENR gave the county 14 days to reply but has not received a response; County Manager Charlie Horne could not be reached for comment.

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