Leaders reluctant to gamble on sewer line expansion

Jackson County commissioners questioned the wisdom of a last-ditch effort to find more customers for the Whittier sewer system at a county meeting Monday.

Commissioner also signaled reluctance to put up county money for a plan they saw as less than ideal. 

New sewer line could unbottle commercial growth in Canton

The commercial corridor of the Canton exit off Interstate 40 has been in a vice grip for several years due to a maxed out sewer line.

Sewer credits: a commodity market in Cashiers

To relieve sewer gridlock in the Cashiers area, the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority may change its rules to let developers swap, transfer and even sell unused sewer capacity.

Cashiers sewer plant at capacity, but only on paper

Sewage and what to do with it has posed a complicated set of problems for the community of Cashiers — problems that could put in peril the area’s economic development as much as the public’s health.

Tourism-driven growth in Cherokee burdens sewer system

fr cherokeesewerThe tribal council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently approved a $28 million upgrade for the sewage treatment plant, which will double the capacity and accommodate demand fueled in part by growth of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Good intentions bite Maggie with sewer fee quandary

Greg Snyder was perturbed when he addressed the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen in June.

In March, Snyder had plunked down $4,625 to connect five new RV sites at Twinbrook Resorts to the town’s sewer system. Less than two weeks later, the town board voted to change its sewer tap fee rates.

Waynesville keeps tight reins on sewer lines in the name of smart growth

Waynesville has once again denied Haywood County’s proposition for extending its sewer lines several miles beyond the town limits toward Balsam along U.S. 23/74.

The county has asked the town to augment its sewer lines near the rest stop a couple of times before, specifically to serve a roadside rest area. But, new sewer lines would also bring the possibility of new and potentially uncontrolled commercial development along that stretch of highway.

Build it and they still didn’t come: Wastewater plant pumps more money in than treated waste out

Whittier’s $5 million wastewater treatment plant could be facing eventual financial insolvency, saddled with too much overhead and too few customers to make operation viable.

The sewer plant, in hindsight, was overbuilt for growth and development that failed to materialize along the U.S. 441 corridor in Jackson County that leads to Cherokee. Ten years later, the plant with a capacity to treat 200,000 gallons is handling a mere 8,000 gallons with just 36 customers.

There’s only enough money to keep operating, as-is, for two more years. Then it’s decision time for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. TWSA, formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, is the reluctant manager of Whittier’s treatment plant, a role the authority inherited. Stakeholders such as Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also must make funding decisions when current payments and savings run dry. And, Jackson County would like to see Swain start helping out after learning that most of the customers are actually residents of that county.

“This could be a little touchy,” Joe Cline, executive director of TWSA, told Jackson commissioners recently. “But, the majority of this system lies in Swain County. And they’ve never been asked to participate.”

“Looks like we should be sending someone a bill,” Commissioner Doug Cody noted.

The plant was built with grant funding, including a nest egg to subsidize operations until the customer base grew. Jackson County and the tribe struck an agreement to pitch in during the initial start-up years.

Jackson County has kicked $300,000 into the plant. It relies on the facility to handle wastewater from nearby Smokey Mountain Elementary School.

The tribe originally bought into the plant concept, to the tune of $100,000 a year for three years, in hopes of using the facility to serve a recreation complex and golf course. Cherokee, which owes one remaining $100,000 payment, ended up taking care of its own wastewater needs from the complex and golf course, arguably getting little out of its investment but making good on its promise.

The Whittier Wastewater Treatment Plant has 25 residential and 11 commercial customers. It has added just a single three-bedroom house to the customer rolls since the plant came online just more than 10 years ago. The customers served by Whittier’s wastewater treatment plant chip-in a total of $20,000 a year to the cost of operating the plant, which comes to about $180,000 annually.

It processes so little sewer that its systems have trouble functioning at times.

“We have to haul sludge to the plant when school is out to keep it operating properly,” Cline said.

Before the sewer plant was built, projections showed 40 customers had an interest in tapping in to it. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in individually owned septic systems.

“If the projections were correct, then at the end of two years, TWSA would have been able to take over and break even, debt free, with operating revenues to pay the costs of going forward. Problem is, the projections haven’t come true,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten told county commissioners recently.

Wooten emphasized that he would like to see TWSA retain its role with the plant, which is technically under the management of the Whittier Sanitary District. That group has been the target of sharp criticisms for lack of accurate recordkeeping and failures to submit timely audits to the state as required.

Still, Wooten maintained, the plant “is an asset, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a waiting game, it’s waiting on the development. But the plant will allow the development to take place.”

As of this week, Jackson County had not officially contacted Swain County about helping to offset costs at the Whittier wastewater treatment plant.

 

Such a big plant to serve so few: how the Whittier Wastewater Plant came to be

Just more than 10 years ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor leading into Cherokee.

Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the Tuckasegee River. The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away, both eventually finished and now open. Under the guidance of the Southwestern Development Commission, these stakeholders came together and built the Whittier Wastewater Plant.

Sullied by sewer back-ups, Cherokee resident files suit against tribe

A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is suing the tribe over sewage overflows onto her property, which she says poses a health threat to her family.

Linda Lambert filed a suit against the tribe in May 2011 over alleged sewage spills from a nearby manhole and sewer pipes. In her complaint against the tribe, Lambert lists 17 specific days that she says sewage overflowed onto her property and into Adam’s Creek during the past two years.

The tribe, however, is asserting that the number of actual sewage overflows is much less. The tribe also contends the overflows were promptly dealt with.

In court documents, Lambert states that raw sewage from the tribe’s sewer treatment plant is seeping onto her land and into nearby Adam’s Creek. Such overflows forced her family to move elsewhere and prevented her from being able to fully enjoy her property, including fishing.

Lambert is seeking $60,000 in damages, including physical, mental and emotional stress. The damages are linked to claims of negligence, trespassing, nuisance, violation of her civil rights and the taking of her property without compensation.

“The fact that it’s overflowing is not in doubt,” said Mark Melrose, Lambert’s attorney with Melrose, Seago and Lay based in Sylva. “I know there are dozens of people who know about it.”

Melrose said they will know more information in the next couple of months as potential witnesses are interviewed.

In court documents, the Eastern Band states that on at least one occasion sewage has leaked into Adam’s Creek, the Oconaluftee River and onto Lambert’s land. However, the discharge was partially treated and posed no health hazard.

“There was an episode, yes,” said Chad Ray Donnahoo, an Asheville attorney hired by the ECBI for this suit. “All that was reported to the EPA.”

Donnahoo said that the tribe did its due diligence by testing any overflows to make sure the seepage was not hazardous and reporting any incidents to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The tribe is in the process of updating its dated sewage system and treatment plant. The last comprehensive upgrade was in 1997 when capacity of the plant was tripled — timed with the opening of Cherokee’s first casino and intended to handle the likely increase in volume. During the past 15 years, the casino has undergone two major expansions — including the recent $633-million enlargement. Adding additional capacity will be part of the coming upgrades, which are in the early planning stages.

The Eastern Band is questioning why Lambert waited until May 2011 to file a formal complaint.

Lambert went before tribal council a couple times before taking legal action, according to court documents.

“She has tried to seek a resolution politically,” Melrose said. “And, she didn’t get any relief.”

Tribal Council passed two resolutions — one in 2008 and another in 2010 — promising to remedy the overflow problems. However, the complaint against the tribe states that nothing has been done and sewage continues to leak onto Lambert’s land.

The tribe “negligently and intentionally” acted or did not act in a way that resulted in “the negligent and wrongful management, operation, maintenance and repair of the Tribe’s sewage collection and transmission system,” states the complaint.

The tribe is hoping to get the case dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Some government entities are immune against certain legal actions. However, if the entity obtains insurance to cover possible lawsuits, it waives its right to immunity.

“We are currently investigating with our insurance provider the coverage issues,” Donnahoo said.

Right now, it is unclear whether or not the Eastern Band’s insurance plan would cover such as case.

“Even if the tribe has the legal escape clause, (I’d hope) that they would do the right thing by tribal members,” Melrose said.

 

An aging system

Cherokee is required to make regular reports to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the tribe’s wastewater discharges. The tribe is also supposed to report any overflows, but it failed to do so prior to November 2010, said Stacey Bouma, an environmental engineer with the agency.

Bouma added that it is not that uncommon: many plants do not realize that they must report overflows, whether they happened on land or in water. Many only report sewage leaks into waterways.

Since November 2010, the tribe has filed 23 reports with the EPA ranging from benign clogged lines to bona fide overflows. The majority are of little consequence.

The overflow reports include a couple of incidents of pipes being harmed during construction, which resulted in release of sewage.

After receiving complaints about overflows on the reservation, the EPA conducted an investigation and found that heavy rain was responsible for a number of overflows.

“The pipes couldn’t handle capacity when it rained,” Bouma said.

While rainwater is supposed to flow through gutters and storm drains, rain water is being funneled into the sewer system in some areas of Cherokee and overwhelming the lines.

“We have had a lot of problems with infiltration,” said Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “That pushes capacity to the limit.”

This is a common problem in towns with older sewage systems — nearby Bryson City has been plagued by this for years.

Overflows as a result of rain flooding the sewer system are luckily diluted, since the sewage is mixed with rainfall or melting snow.

In addition to reporting any water contamination, the treatment plant is required to tell the EPA if anything is coming out of a manhole connected to the sewer system.

The investigation also identified a manhole near Adams Creek as “a problem area,” Bouma said.

When a pump malfunctions or a leak in a sewage line occurs, the tribe reports it to the EPA, Blythe said. Many of the pipes that carry raw and treated sewage to and from the plant are old, and the tribe is working to replace them, he said.

The Eastern Band is planning to upgrade its sewer system and wastewater treatment plant, replacing old equipment and increasing its capacity. Blythe said the tribe is still working through estimates of what exactly the improvements will consist and how much they would cost.

He declined to address any legal issue regarding the wastewater treatment plant.

The treatment plant was first built in 1984 and was could process 0.9 million gallons of sewage each day. In 1997, however, the plant was updated and its capacity more than tripled. It is now permitted to treat up to 3 million gallons each day.

Renegade houseboat meets its demise

A houseboat on Fontana Lake was dismantled and hauled off this month after the owner repeatedly failed to dispose of waste properly.

For more than a year the houseboat owner dodged rules against straight piping sewage into the lake. The owner also skirted rules that limit how long a houseboat can sit in the same spot on the lake if it isn’t in a harbor.

The houseboat owner was sent warning letters from the Swain County Health Department, which polices sewage disposal by houseboats on the lake. After certified letters went unreturned, a notice was posted on the front door of the owner’s house, said Linda White, director of the Swain County Health Department.

After still no response, the county attorney sent him a final warning telling him to remove his houseboat or face fines and even criminal charges for violating the county’s houseboat waste disposal ordinance.

The houseboat owner finally took notice — but instead of complying he tootled down the lake to the Graham County side, out of Swain’s jurisdiction.

Graham County also has an ordinance that prevents houseboats from dumping their sewage into the lake, but after six months of getting nowhere, Swain authorities were happy to let someone else try. Graham didn’t have much luck either, however.

Meanwhile, the houseboat owner was loitering too long in one spot. Houseboats have to either be tied up in a harbor or on the move —  moving at least one nautical mile every two weeks. Tennessee Valley Authority flags boats that set up camp in one place on the open lake for too long. House boats outside a harbor aren’t supposed to be left unattended longer than 24 hours, either.

There are five private boat docks on the lake that will harbor houseboats in coves that branch off the main stem of the lake. Most of the 500 houseboats on the lake never budge from the boat dock where they lease harbor space. The owners use their houseboats as a home base on the water but use motorboats or pontoons to venture from the shoreline and play on the open lake.

The dock owners also handle houseboat sewage, using a fleet of pump boats to collect sewage from all the houseboats in their harbors and haul it to shore.

But this renegade houseboat owner simply idled around the lake.

“He refused to go to a harbor,” said David Monteith, head of the Fontana Lake Users Association and a Swain County commissioner. “He did not want to get into compliance and get into a harbor and sign a pumping contract.”

Ultimately, however, the lake itself dealt the houseboat a fatal blow. During a storm, it broke lose of its moorings and capsized.

“It was a navigation hazard,” said Darrell Cuthbertson with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages the lake. “Only two feet of one corner was sticking up from the water, and we were afraid someone was going to hit it so we drug it over to the bank.”

The closest shoreline happened to be National Park Service property. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park wasn’t exactly fond of a soggy, capsized houseboat on its lakeshore and asked the owner to claim his houseboat.

When he didn’t meet the deadline, Tennessee Valley Authority dismantled it and hauled off the scraps, Cuthbertson said.

 

Lake sewage rules

A local push to clean up Lake Fontana was set in motion about 10 years ago following a revelation that the bacteria level in the water was unsafe — five times above accepted fecal coliform counts.

All that sewage, not only from toilets but also “gray water” from showers and sinks, was polluting the lake.

Those who used the lake banded together under the Fontana Lake Users Association to address the issue. The group lobbied officials in Swain and Graham counties to pass ordinances regulating houseboat waste and secured more than $700,000 in grants to get a fleet of pump boats up and running.

Houseboats now collect their own sewage in tanks and have it pumped out and hauled ashore periodically by boat dock owners.

Houseboat owners must display a sticker on the outside of their boat showing they are in compliance with the law. To get a sticker, they have to provide a copy of their pumping contract with a boat dock owner.

Interestingly, houseboat owners go through the county property tax office to get their stickers since houseboat owners are supposed to pay property taxes on their boats anyway.

The sewage ordinance actually killed two birds with one stone: it cleaned up the lake and dramatically increased the number of houseboat owners paying taxes on their boats — much like your license plate renewal is tied to automobile inspection.

Monteith hopes this will be a lesson to any houseboat owner thinking of skirting the waste disposal laws on the lake.

“To me, it goes to show this is what could happen if you fail to get in compliance with this ordinance in Swain and Graham County. This is what could happen to anybody’s houseboat, it could be dismantled,” Monteith said.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.