Clover paying fines for high ammonia levels in wastewater

CLOVER -- Blame the drought for another water problem.

This time, it's costing Clover thousands of dollars in fines and fees for a consultant to suggest remedies.

Town officials believe dry conditions are responsible for unusually high levels of ammonia in the town's wastewater. The levels exceed the limits placed on Clover by its water supplier, the city of Gastonia, N.C.

Clover has paid about $35,000 in fines to Gastonia for exceeding the limits over the past 18 months. The money came from the town's water and sewage fund, not from the general budget.

The ammonia exceeds limits only in the town's wastewater. Drinking water supplies are not in danger, and town officials insist there is no health risk to water customers.

Town Administrator Allison Harvey said the ammonia levels in the wastewater are monitored because the chemical must be removed when the wastewater is treated. Gastonia considers Clover an industrial customer and charges the town for the water it consumes and returns for treatment.

"The water is measured every month and in every other area we're in good shape. But for the past 18 months, we have not been able to meet the ammonia standard," Harvey said. "It's a problem."

Harvey said public works officials in Clover and Gastonia have investigated several causes. After determining the ammonia wasn't intentionally injected into the system from an outside source, officials adjusted the lift station and blowers that pump wastewater from Clover to Gastonia. But the high levels remained.

By eliminating other potential causes, Harvey said town engineers determined drought conditions are responsible. The concentration of ammonia is higher than normal because water users have curtailed their water use, resulting in fewer gallons entering the sewage system, officials contend. Exacerbating the problem is that little rainwater has infiltrated the sewage system during the drought. Rainwater usually dilutes the wastewater, officials say, reducing ammonia levels.

Public works officials also believe the water stagnates along its 10-mile journey to Gastonia because of the lower volume.

"There may not be more ammonia going in," Harvey said. "But its concentration is higher."

The town hired Joseph McGougan, an engineer from Conway, to examine the problem, determine a definite cause and suggest solutions.

"We tried to exhaust everything before going to the consultant," Harvey said. "But now it has gotten to the point that we need to get to the bottom of this and stop paying fines."

McGougan said he doesn't discuss his work until he shares results with town officials. At that time, the report will be released to the public.

"We're working on it," McGougan said. "We've collected a lot of data and analysis, and we're preparing our findings."

He hopes to share the report within the next week.

Until then, Harvey offers her last solution: "Pray for rain."