Raleigh Public Utilities was in the news again last month for discharging "increasing amounts of manganese and iron" from its water treatment plant into an unnamed tributary that flows directly into Falls Lake—Raleigh's only drinking water source and a public water supply for 350,000 Wake County residents. As The News & Observer reported on Sept. 16, "High levels of manganese can be toxic to the central nervous system."
In May 2006, The News & Observer also reported that for more than six years, management at Raleigh Public Utilities withheld information from city leaders that Raleigh's $15 million ozone system--an important treatment process for clean drinking water--was never installed correctly, has never properly worked, and may never work properly without significant and costly repairs.
Raleigh Public Utilities' response has been to simply downplay the issue, as it has with every problem at Raleigh's water treatment plant. Rather than admit to the extent of failures with the ozone system, the utilities department decided it has no intention of fixing the ozone system to properly treat settled water for 350,000 people; instead, it plans only to fix the raw water part of the system that provides minimal treatment benefits. Council member Jessie Taliaferro was quoted in The News & Observer as saying: "It's not working at an acceptable level. We want to investigate why and who is responsible for paying for the repairs." Unfortunately, Raleigh ratepayers will likely have to accept that they financed a $15 million boondoggle or pay millions more to fix the failed ozone system.
How many times will Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen allow upper management at public utilities to embarrass the capital city? The department has a long history of Clean Water Act violations and illegal discharges to Falls Lake and the Neuse River. In 2002, state investigators discovered unpermitted discharges of black sludge downstream from the treatment plant and chlorine levels so high that aquatic life in the stream had virtually perished. Raleigh agreed to put in a dechlorination system to eliminate the toxicity problems, but the problems continue.
In January, discharges of chlorine and calcium--more than 200,000 gallons a day--mixed with a variety of chemicals used for water treatment caused a highly unusual explosion of white slime (bacteria) and green algae downstream from the plant. Despite good intentions by City Council, which approved $3.25 million to fix these problems (again), toxic discharges to Falls Lake continue. According to a February 2006 report by the state Division of Water Quality, conditions downstream of Raleigh's water treatment plant "have declined considerably in the past five months."
Neither the state nor the utilities department have adequately studied how these chemicals are affecting Falls Lake. Nor do they seem to care. Sheffield Manor residents, who have seen the stream change multiple colors over the years, are afraid to let their pets and children enter the stream. And while downstream residents are grateful for the Raleigh City Council's recent actions to eliminate the discharge from the plant, many were disturbed by the response from Utilities Director Dale Crisp, who suggested leaking septic tanks may be to blame instead of taking responsibility for problems clearly linked to the water treatment plant.
Sheffield Manor residents didn't buy it. Neither did the City Council, which felt compelled to allocate more than $3 million in March for plant upgrades they thought had been fixed in 2003. State investigators now say the bacteria resulted from a chemical the city uses to cut the amount of chlorine that enters the stream. The recently discovered high levels of manganese and iron only emphasize that Crisp has consistently misled the Raleigh City Council, Sheffield Manor residents and everyone who depends on Falls Lake for drinking water.
Unfortunately, the city manager continues to ignore the department's response to these problems, much as he attempted to do at Raleigh's sewage treatment plant in 2002, despite numerous reports from plant employees alleging problems there. Unsatisfied with reports from Crisp and Allen, Mayor Charles Meeker and City Council directed City Attorney Tom McCormick to conduct his own investigation in June 2002. McCormick's investigation revealed more than a dozen violations at the sewage treatment plant, including unreported bypasses of sludge--54 million gallons over four days--into the Neuse River and the state's largest groundwater contamination problem (1,000 acres) from the excessively over-applying sludge. Crisp never told city leaders about the troubles at the sewage treatment plant. Constant media attention pressured the city to spend more than $40 million in fixes (and fines) and fire Superintendent Marc Fender. Thankfully, new plant leadership has helped get the previously troubled sewage treatment plant back on track, but we continue to see the same problems at Raleigh's water treatment plant.
Management problems at the water treatment plant have led the City Council to explore options for hiring an environmental compliance officer to police plant operations and the council is now investigating problems with the ozone system. These actions only demonstrate serious credibility issues with leadership at public utilities and plant management. Allen has made it clear that he supports the current management, but why would Allen continue to endorse this inexcusable mismanagement of our water resources? When will Raleigh get the ozone system we rightfully paid for?
Wake County citizens and downstream residents who depend on Falls Lake and the Neuse River deserve greater accountability. We shouldn't have to worry about gross mismanagement, ongoing corruption and illegal discharges when it comes to our drinking water. Raleigh leaders have made a commitment to bring in new leadership from larger metropolitan areas for Raleigh's chief of police and fire departments to better service the growing needs of this rapidly urbanizing area. Yet, when it comes to Raleigh Public Utilities, the city manager seems content with sub-par performance from management and no accountability.
Dean Naujoks is the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper for the Neuse River Foundation. After working eight years for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, he majored in environmental policy and sustainable development at N.C. State and became fulltime riverkeeper in 2001. In that position he patrols the watershed, analyzes permits and works with regulators and elected officials to safeguard Falls Lake and the Neuse River.