North Carolina Division of Water Quality officials failed to inspect the wastewater irrigation system of an Elkin-based mill in 2009, 2010 and most of 2011 — instead relying on self-reporting from the firm that showed no environmental problems, according to records.
When the state agency did show up to Weyerhaeuser in December of 2011, it discovered Weyerhaeuser’s wastewater was running off its sprayfields and flowing in one direction — toward the Yadkin River. That finding resulted in the state issuing a Notice of Violation (NOV) to Weyerhaeuer on Dec. 23, 2011. It was 18 months before the state issued a Notice of Correction (NOC) on July 16, 2013, signifying the fields met state environmental regulations.
The NOV started a frenzy of events for Weyerhaeuser which ultimately pulled in Surry County Board of Commissioners to support a $2 million public-private partnership with the Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority for a new municipal sewer line to reach the mill, a project partially funded by Surry County taxpayers.
However, Weyerhaeuser last week revealed it never informed the Surry County Board of Commissioners on the NOV. Some commissioners say had they learned of violations, it would’ve been a game changer.
Spray distribution of wastewater
Weyerhaeuser, one of the world’s largest private owners of timber lands, owns or controls more than 6 million acres of timberlands, primarily in the United States. The company employees about 130 people in its Elkin mill. The facility has been operating in Elkin since 1986 and has always relied on a wastewater irrigation system (sprayfield).
Spray distribution systems “are much like a lawn sprinkler system. They spray treated wastewater is distributed over the surface of a yard,” according to information from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. Surface application of effluent is a relatively high risk dispersal method due to potential human contact with odors, contaminants, and pathogens.
According to a N.C. Division of Water Resources operations spokesperson, sprayfields are only as good as the management over them. The effluent volume and wastewater strength applied to the site must be known and adjusted, if necessary. Application in excess of design, or even age of the field, may reduce the ability of the soil to accept effluent, which could lead to runoff.
The lack of state inspections
“I do not know why Weyerhaeuser was not inspected in those years,” said Patrick L. Mitchell, REHS, LSS, Water Quality Regional Operations Section for the Division of Water Resources, N.C. Department of Environment & Natural Resources who assumed his position in 2011. “It’s protocol for us to inspect facilities annually. We do more to a facility if the facility has past violations.”
Mitchell said Weyerhaeuser self-reported to the state in 2009, 2010 and 2011. “The reports showed no concern for alarm,” said Mitchell.
According to Mitchell’s NOV report, “The spray zones were found to be poorly vegetated and ‘saturated/ponded’ in comparison to areas adjacent that were outside the spray zones. The fields were denuded in areas and had dead and/or dormant vegetation in others….The wastewater is running off the spray fields in eight locations…In six of these locations the runoff is resulting in a discharge to surface water (four to unnamed tributaries and two to an on-site freshwater pond).”
The report said all spray fields in 8A spray zone were reported as having soil pH greater than 7.0 with some fields having a soil pH value as high as 9.3. Per the N.C. Division of Water Resources, soil pH is an important chemical property because it affects the availability of nutrients to plants and the activity of soil microorganisms. Soil pH is a measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of a soil. On the pH scale, 7.0 is neutral. Below 7.0 acid, and above 7.0 is basic or alkaline.
The report said the zinc (Zn) index for field 8 was 2,312. A zinc index of 3,000 is considered the critical toxic level for most “non-sensitive plants” and nutrient management guidelines typically stipulate searching for alternative waste application sites when soils reach a greater level than 2,000.
Mitchell said the 2011 conditions didn’t happen in one day, but he would not speculate how long the runoff problem was happening.
Weyerhaeuser said it disagreed with the NOV, but stands by its support shifting away from sprayfields.
“The 2011 NOV received by Elkin is a perfect example of why we are ready to cease the use of sprayfields as a wastewater treatment system for the facility. Sprayfields are difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to operate in the very best of conditions. Rainfall in small amounts of a quarter to half of an inch can be difficult for the most diligent managers, like us,” said Nancy Thompson, government and community affairs manager for Weyerhaeuser. Sprayfields have been continually in use at the Elkin facility since 1987. “We have spent an average of $100,000 annually before and since the NOV on soil maintenance and we also hired a soil scientist to advise us. As these systems age, the actual sprayfield soil can become stained and salt content can become higher.”
Thompson continued, “When the inspector visited the facility in December 2011, there had been some rainfall in the days leading up to the visit and there was light rainfall on the day of the visit. The inspector noted some light brown water running off of the field. We believed then, and still believe, this was never wastewater — it was rain water that had the brown stain of the soil.”
Despite disagreeing with the state’s findings, Thompson said Weyerhaeuser did not challenge the NOV. “We simply and immediately began the corrective actions listed in the NOV, which included options like installing berms and additional spray zones between the sprayfields.”
Reflecting on the NOV, Mitchell said he followed runoff from the sprayfields to the Yadkin River saying, “This doesn’t look healthy.” Mitchell added that due to the high strength wastewater of Weyerhaeuser, runoff biochemicals potentially flowing into a waterway reduce the oxygen level in the water.
“We are not aware of any breach into the Yadkin River. The same day of the inspection, our staff and the inspector walked along tributaries and drainage ponds on our property and followed the stained water until you could no longer see it. Our staff said the water was clear after a distance in the tributary,” said Thompson.
Pitching the public-private partnership
According to Weyerhaeuser, it informed the Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority of the NOV, but not Surry County commissioners.
Prior to receiving the NOC, Weyerhaeuser teamed up with the Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority and the duo first pitched the project to commissioners at Weyerhaeuser in February of 2013. The afternoon session was closed to the media, despite the presence of at least three commissioners.
In April of 2014, the Surry County Economic Development Partnership announced that Surry County was awarded three grants totaling $755,900 for the sewer expansion project. Surry County taxpayers will contribute $85,300 while Weyerhaeuser will invest $1.2 million on its property to connect onto the sewer line and build a new pretreatment facility.
“The county match was required by the N.C. Department of Commerce for the Industrial Development Fund grant. Weyerhaeuser never asked for it (grants) and Weyerhaeuser will not receive it. All grant monies will go to YVSA for this project. Weyerhaeuser is investing $1.2 million on our own property to have the water ready for the municipal connection. Also, this sewer extension will serve other customers in the area,” said Thompson.
“I did not know they were under distress at that time though. This is an absolute first I’ve heard of it,” said Surry County Commissioner Paul Johnson. “I knew about the sewer line, but I thought the company was trying to get a grip on long-term costs…I would’ve liked to have known about this.”
“I didn’t know about a past violation,” said Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips. “We don’t want to manage what happens inside the property. They have a right to run a business…However, they don’t have a right to disrespect the environment of the community…There are natural concerns that we cherish in the county…and when there’s a problem, at minimum we let each other know it.”
Phillips said the county has major tourism points developing along the Yadkin River. “Trails are being developed too from the Mountain to Sea route. We have to protect our environment…Had we known about a violation, we may have required them to pay for this (sewer line). We would’ve looked into it further.”
“I would not agree that we were under a violation…By the time the DENR inspected again and cleared all of the paperwork in order to validate the corrective action, it could have been 2013. But, that doesn’t mean we were not addressing anything prior to that date. In fact, all actions had been taken care of well before the February 2013 meeting. We were inspected in 2012 and three times in 2013 with no violations/deficiencies/concerns at all,” said Thompson.
However, one follow-up inspection in mid-2012 said evidence of ponding and runoff still existed in multiple spray fields, and a March 8, 2013, letter from NCDWQ to Weyerhaeuser stated there were still denuded areas present in spray zone 8A, burrow holes were present on the bankment of the storage and treatment ponds, and a permanent vegetative cover was needed in areas where berms were removed along the perimeter of the spray fields.
Weyerhaeuser’s fields were adjusted in July of 2013 to accept a hydraulic loading rate of 20.1 inches a year (a reduction of more than 10 inches) to the existing spray zones. The company added more than eight acres of additional irrigation area for new spray zones. The company is awaiting an engineering certification and for the publicly funded pipe to reach their property line.
Anthony Gonzalez may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @newsgonz.