A $10,000 reward for information on illegal dumping aims to solve a months-old case, and help water experts find a better way to prevent future incidents.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department on April 4 announced a reward for information about the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyl materials, banned synthetic compounds linked to endocrine cancers, that ended up in Mallard Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant earlier this year. A criminal task force is investigating the case.
On Feb. 6, plant operators at Mallard Creek noticed an unusual substance found to contain PCBs. The material came from a grease trap near a restaurant on West Sugar Creek Road in Charlotte.
Two days later, Sugar Creek Treatment Plant noticed another unusual substance determined to be fuel. The task force determined PCB-contaminated wastewater also entered the McAlpine Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest in Mecklenburg County, between November and early March.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities says its water supply and those downstream are safe, as the facilities captured most or all of the material.
David Baize with South Carolina’s Bureau of Water said there have been issues in recent years of illegal PCB dumping into grease traps. An incident in the Greenville-Spartanburg area is now a criminal investigation, he said. It costs “millions of dollars” for utilities to shut down and clean the facilities once contaminated.
Barry Gullet, director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, last month told the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission the February contamination was found by an employee noticing an odor.
“We were able to trace that smell 10 miles upstream,” Gullet said.
The utility spent more than $200,000 in the first week to stabilize its plant. Commission experts said it would be expensive to come up with better ways of disposing PCBs, but illegal dumping is just as costly if not more.
“The real issue here is an outlet for this material,” Gullet said. “We need to be looking at a better way to manage this stuff.”
Industries uses like manufacturing and HVAC used PCBs for decades before they were federally banned several decades ago. Yet still they appear in public waters and fish tissue samples.
“The majority of what you see today is in air conditioners, and they’re everywhere,” said Jimmy Bagley, deputy city manager for Rock Hill.
Any sizable amount must be disposed of at a special landfill, the nearest being in Alabama.
“We’re seeing some concentrations they wouldn’t take in Alabama,” Gullet told the group.
Lowering the risk
The bi-state commission asked both states to come up with recommendations on containing PCBs by its next quarterly meeting. Baize said it would be difficult for the states to come up with their own solution.
Commission member Smith “Smitty” Hanks, a former Lake Wylie Marine commissioner, says there could be a larger solution.
“If this is happening in North Carolina and South Carolina, it’s got to be happening everywhere,” he said.
Federal money may be needed to create more places where PCBs can be disposed. Until then, Gullet said, illegal dumping will continue.
Commission member Dan Clodfelter, last week named mayor of Charlotte, said creating places to drop off or store the material is costly but so is clean-up.
“If we’re going to pay the cost anyway,” he told the group, “I’d rather pay for it on the front end.”
Commissioners also worry efforts to prevent dumping could worsen the problem. While a system like Charlotte-Mecklenburg may have the resources to prevent dumping, smaller municipalities may not.
Fish samples run $200 to $1,000 each to test for PCB concentrations. Testing generally includes only large, predatory fish and lakes, not tributaries.
“We need more monitoring,” said James Glover, who studies fish tissues for Department of Health and Environment Control. “We need more data. We need people to understand data.”
A largemouth bass advisory on Lake Wylie and the Catawba River in South Carolina sets limits of one meal per week or none for risk-groups, such as children and pregnant women. North Carolina has the same advisory on Lake Wylie, limiting to two meals of largemouth per month.
No utilities are reporting unsafe drinking water. At McAlpine Creek, PCB concentrations haven’t reached a third of the threshold considered unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Disposal costs of the material from recent dumping hasn’t been determined. Anyone with information on illegal dumping should call 704-334-1600. Anyone observing an illegal dump should call 911.