by Lisa Sorg
Toluene, ethyl glycol and propylene glycol were detected earlier this month after facility operators smelled an “unusual odor” coming from the septic tank of the domestic wastewater system, according to a letter sent yesterday from UNC to N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Water Quality.
These chemicals are being used in construction at the site and according to an e-mail sent from UNC to neighbors of the facility, it is believed the chemicals reached the septic tank through the sewer lines from the new building. The chemicals remain inside a storage area used for holding wastewater until it can be pumped and hauled away.
Toluene may affect the nervous system. Low to moderate levels can cause tiredness, confusion, weakness, drunken-type actions, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, and hearing and color vision loss. These symptoms usually disappear when exposure is stopped.
Inhaling high levels of toluene in a short time can causes dizziness or sleepy. It can also cause unconsciousness, and even death. High levels of toluene may affect the kidneys.
UNC has shut down the wastewater system while contractors investigate the cause of several breaches that have occurred since last fall. In the meantime, the university has been pumping and hauling treated wastewater to Mason Farm treatment plant, which is operated by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority.
However, OWASA told UNC it could not accept the wastewater because of the high concentrations of toluene.
UNC has contracted with Clean Harbors to dispose of the contaminated wastewater and to clean out the system.
Since last fall, the facility has been plagued with problems, including leaks in storage ponds that hold treated wastewater. Some of that wastewater—while treated, it is not sterile—reached nearby Collins Creek.
N.C. DENR has issued two notices of violation to the facility and threatened to fine UNC as much as $25,000 if the issues are not addressed.