As Chatham County plans a major expansion of water service, the state has serious concerns about current operations. And former employees say they’ve been told to keep quiet about the problems. by jennifer strom Chatham County wants taxpayers to support a massive, $36-million expansion of its water system. The problem is, state regulators say the county is having a lot of trouble running the system it has now.

Residents of a proposed new northern water district vote Tuesday on whether the county should borrow $9.3 million to build their system and hook it into an expanded county water plant–a revote due to balloting errors this summer. But the existing plant, which treats Jordan Lake water for Chatham’s current consumers, has run up so many violations of water quality standards and struggled with so many mechanical breakdowns and staffing inadequacies that the state plans a comprehensive performance evaluation in December to analyze every aspect of its operation.

“We became very concerned they were careening toward a cavalcade of violations,” says Diane Williams, an environmental engineer in the public water supply division of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Haven’t heard much about it? Maybe this is why: Chatham’s former public works director says the county manager specifically told him not to talk about the problems while the bond vote on creating three new districts was pending in the July 20 primary.

County officials say the problems are not that serious, they’re making progress on solutions, and that they never told anyone to keep quiet. Supporters of the expansion say it will solve water quantity and quality problems residents now experience with private wells, and insist a countywide water system is a necessary component for economic growth.

“The water quality is as good as it’s ever been, and we have a keen interest in making it second to none,” says County Manager Charlie Horne.

But the project’s opponents say county leaders who favor development are pushing for it despite warning signs about the existing water system and supply. They also worry the new network of pipes will bring faster-paced growth and question its necessity when there’s no major water shortage or contamination crisis. In the state’s second-fastest-growing county with a pro-development majority in power, a lack of public water serves as one of the few impediments that keep large parcels of raw land from the bulldozers, opponents say.

These various arguments dominated the public conversation leading up to the July 20 bond referendum, during which two of the three districts were approved. But the voting public wasn’t told that Chatham’s water system has teetered on the edge of dysfunction for the last year, drawing notices of violations and increasing scrutiny from state regulators, and requiring shoring up by expensive private consultants.

County administrators and elected officials deeply invested in the bond’s passage purposely shielded that information, says former public works director Steve Talbert.

“I was told verbatim by Charlie Horne, ‘I don’t want any announcements of these violations and problems to the public or anyone else until after all the meetings and all the votes are over with,’” says Talbert, who was let go in August after his nine-month probationary period as a new employee ended. “They didn’t want anything negative out there that was going to challenge the administration of Chatham County.”

Horne denies that conversation. Asked whether he ever instructed Talbert to cover up criticisms, he said: “Heavens, no. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Horne and other county officials also downplay the severity of problems at the water treatment plant, which dispenses up to 3 million gallons to 9,000 people in northeastern Chatham County every day.

But regulators and record-keepers at DENR are concerned enough that they’re closely monitoring the plant, sending a field officer out there as often as once a week this spring. They have also selected Chatham for an intervention program that sends a team of state specialists into the plant for several weeks of nitty-gritty detail work, scheduled for December. That program, which one state offical calls “a team of white hats taking a head-to-toe look,” identifies problems that don’t show up in routine monthly reports.

Of even greater concern, DENR officials confirm they are investigating tips that Chatham has purposely avoided reporting water quality deficiencies or falsified reports to cover up damaging results, another reason for a closer examination.

“Some people have sent me comments saying the levels weren’t true–`if you got this-and-such, it wasn’t right,’” Williams said.

High rates of staff turnover, incorrect or incomplete monitoring and reporting of water quality, as well as mechanical troubles have drawn scrutiny and state corrective actions over the last year.

Horne and other county officials defend the integrity of the plant’s reports and attribute the state citations to “paperwork problems,” pointing out that monitoring and reporting errors don’t necessarily imply the water is unsafe to drink. But state regulators come down hard in enforcing monitoring and reporting standards because if the water isn’t tested, there’s no way to know whether consumers are endangered.

The pattern of growing problems, particularly in the personnel department, suggested to DENR officials that Chatham was heading for serious trouble that could eventually affect the safety of the public’s drinking water.

“With turnover like they’ve had, it gets very difficult to keep things in balance. If they fail to do the paperwork, they get violations, but our bottom line is to make sure the water’s safe to drink,” says Williams, the environmental engineer.

Recent staffing problems have included: a vacant public works director position since Talbert’s departure in August; difficulty retaining a certified operator who lives within 50 miles of the plant, a regulation that ensures a shorter response time for off-hours emergencies; and the sudden May resignation of chief operator Alan Verchereau after just two weeks on the job.

Verchereau says he quit because the water plant was chronically understaffed and because his efforts to address the myriad operational problems were stymied by the political agendas of those above him.

“I wasn’t allowed to run the plant the way it needed to be run,” says Verchereau, a 30-year veteran of other N.C. water systems, where he earned a reputation for strict adherence to environmental protocols. “I presented a plan to do that, and I was told to keep my mouth shut.”

Chatham’s water plant has logged nine official violations since July 2003–more than half of its 16 total violations since 2000, the year that DENR’s field officer reported a comprehensive list of deficiencies and began urging the county to address them. Compared with other, larger local systems, Chatham’s numbers are high. The Orange Water and Sewer Authority, which serves seven times as many customers, has only one violation on record for its entire history. The city of Raleigh, which serves 35 times the customer base, has drawn only five violations in 20 years.

Of the nine specific violations Chatham was cited for, eight reflect procedural errors such as collecting too few water samples for several routine monthly tests (see sidebar, page 27). The ninth and most serious violation occurred in August 2003, when Chatham was cited for exceeding the allowable limit of trihalomethanes, or THMs. Long-term consumption of THMs, a disinfection byproduct, have been linked to liver, kidney and central nervous system problems, as well as increased risks of cancer.

(These numbers apply only to the main Chatham water system that draws, treats and distributes water from Jordan Lake. They do not reflect the performance of smaller water systems the county oversees, which buy water from other plants, nor do they apply to the municipal systems in Pittsboro and Siler City, which are run by their respective towns.)

In addition to specific violations of water quality standards, Chatham’s plant has been dogged by operational problems that are documented in inspection reports. They include a lengthy struggle to bring a new ammonia disinfection system on-line; a plant shut-down for maintenance and repairs that forced the county to buy water from Durham for several weeks this spring; malfunctions in the communication system that relays data from remote monitors to the plant; formal and informal reprimands from DENR regulators for not following routine, mandated procedures such as clearing repair plans with the state before undertaking them; and errors and omissions in public notifications, such as in September 2004, when DENR officials required the county to issue corrections to its mandatory water quality report to customers for 2003–an annual report the county was rapped for failing to publish at all the previous year.

County leaders have taken some steps in the right direction. The ammonia system, which should cut down THM contamination, is up and running. An employee of the county’s engineering consulting firm has been put in charge of the plant until the county hires a new operator. Horne, the county manager, says it’s difficult to find certified operators willing to work for salaries Chatham County can afford. He is also still trying to fill the public works director position.

“They have corrected a lot of issues, but there’s still some ground to cover,” says Bobby Whisnant, the field officer who has been the state’s liaison with Chatham since 1999.

Whisnant and other state regulators decline comment on whether Chatham ought to be planning to expand its water system in light of the current conditions, saying their job is to help the system comply with state and federal water quality rules, not to weigh in on the politics of growth.

But this week, voters in northern Chatham will be asked for their opinions at the polls. Though residents approved selling bonds to pay for proposed water districts in the southeast and southwest, at $3.2 million and $7.5 million respectively, the $9.3 million bond question in the northern district failed by less than 100 votes. Since supporters mounted a successful legal challenge over balloting irregularities, 4,564 voters in the proposed northern district will get a second chance to weigh in on Tuesday. (In addition to the $20 million in bond projects, another $16.4 million in county money will pay for system-wide upgrades and boosting the capacity of the treatment plant.)

The county’s pro-growth contingent, led by Commissioner Bunkey Morgan, has fought hard for the project, touting it as an economic and public safety necessity. Over the last year, Morgan made it clear he would push it through, even going so far as to advocate for a particular developer’s desire for county water during a commissioners’ meeting in February.

Morgan and other supporters often cite problems with private wells that were amplified by the extreme drought two years ago. County Republican Party secretary Martie Hipple, a project cheerleader and resident of the proposed northern district, lambasted critics at a recent public forum, insisting her well can’t provide enough water for her “150 thirsty cows.”

Commissioner Bob Atwater believes there is a need across the county, though he admits the data is anecdotal at best. “I know of people who don’t have their water tested because they know it wouldn’t pass,” Atwater says.

Those sorts of declarations are exactly the problem, say those who aren’t convinced: There is no documentation that the county faces a crisis of either quality or quantity of drinking water in private wells.

Engineering consultant Tim Carpenter of Hobbs, Upchurch and Associates confirmed those assertions at a water forum on Oct. 21 hosted by the Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities and Friends of the Rocky River.

“There was not a study done to determine the need,” said Carpenter, pointing out that residents in the new water districts must choose whether to tap on, and insisting that existing residents, not proposed new subdivisions, are driving the project. “The need thus far has been generated by residents’ communications with county commissioners.”

Meanwhile, the county is moving ahead with the two approved water districts, as well as $16.4 million in system-wide repairs and improvements, such as $9.2 million for new distribution lines carrying water westward from Pittsboro, and $1.6 million in upgrades to the hydraulic system that serves northeastern users. The engineering costs alone total about $1.8 million in contracts with Carpenter’s Southern Pines firm, which is addressing both aspects of Chatham’s water system–fixing the existing problems and planning for the enormous expansion.

Slow-growth advocates suggest there are enough concerns about the former to warrant applying the brakes to the latter.

“Adding thousands more people into this water system may not be the most sensible thing to do right now,” Haw River Assembly leader Elaine Chiosso said at the recent forum.

Friends of the Rocky River President Sonny Keisler, who is also a longtime Chatham developer, borrowed from a doctors’ creed to sum up his take.

“Water lines are a double-edged sword. They can do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of harm,” Keisler said. “We have time to look into the future, plan carefully, and first of all, do no harm.” x