Here, between the mottled brown and green hues of the Haw River bank and the dam beneath the U.S. 15-501 bridge, a man has scrawled a message on a rusted metal pipe to his late father.

“I love you, dad. Thanks for bringing me here as a kid 45 years ago. R.I.P. poppa. Best dad ever. Mark. Feb. 28, 2014.”

It’s the river that brings out the sentimentality, says Elaine Chiosso, riverkeeper for the environmental nonprofit Haw River Assembly. “People really love their river. People really do.”

Chiosso has lived on the Haw in the Chatham County community of Bynum for 40 years. Her children played on these banks. It’s more than a water supply, she says. It’s a memory. Today, she has a reason for solemnity.

In the evening of Jan. 27, a 55-year-old sewer line near a Burlington wastewater treatment plant upstream failed. As a bitter winter storm seethed, raw sewage backed up in the line and gushed into the nearby Haw, which feeds into the water supply for roughly 300,000 residents in the Triangle.

By the time the leak was plugged two days later, a staggering 3.5 million gallons of liquid sewage had coursed into the river. That’s about 25 times the total amount spilled by Orange County’s sewer system, OWASA, in the last 10 years.

State law mandates public notification of the spill within 48 hours of it reaching state waters. Burlington, advised by an unnamed DENR field worker, did not issue a release until roughly 70 hours after the city’s system failed, potentially exposing any rafters, fishers and boaters to the pollutants.

Eric Davis, sewer and water operations manager for Burlington, called it “catastrophic.” Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ water quality division, ranked it among the top 40 sewage spills in North Carolina history.

“You wouldn’t be able to print what I thought about it,” Chiosso says.

Reeder acknowledged that the delay in public notification is his office’s fault, although the field worker who erred that day will not face dismissal or disciplinary action.

Susan Massengale, spokeswoman for Reeder’s office, likened it to a police officer opting not to write a ticket for a speeding motorist with a clean driving record. “Our regional supervisor, he ain’t going to be making that call again,” Massengale says.

And that, Reeder said, is where the public notification discussion should end. “I told the General Assembly and they’re entrusted with the law and they didn’t want any follow-up,” he said. “So I just left it at that.”

But after Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill into the Dan River a week later, the Haw incident seemed to be little more than a footnote. At a tense February meeting of the N.C. General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission, the disaster on the Haw was relegated to a momentary preamble.

But during that meeting, Chiosso called on state lawmakers to find the cash and the political will to search for these aging sewer lineswhich she calls an environmental “timebomb” before they break.

“You can’t drive your car and spew noxious materials in everyone’s face,” she said. “There are laws. You have to fix that.”

State officials report thousands of spills, most of them minor, in North Carolina every year. DENR records count 1,348 reported sewage overflows in 2013, with an estimated 52 million gallons reaching state waters. Some sewer systems count multiple spills every year. But rarely is this amount of sewage spilled in one event.

However, as both Chiosso and Reeder noted, the environmental damage and public health risks could have been incalculable, were it not for winter temperatures that stifled bacterial growth in the river. In warmer weather, the bacteria would have thrived, devouring oxygen used by Haw River fish to survive.

As it is, Reeder said no fish kills were reported. Pittsboro, which owns the nearest downstream water treatment plant, reported no negative impacts on the supply. And, because of the cold weather, officials said there were no recreational river users coming in contact with the pollutants. “We were lucky,” says Reeder.

Reeder says his office sees spills once or twice a quarter that are “big enough to get our attention,” but they are much more common in parts of the state with aging infrastructure such as Burlington.

An INDY analysis of DENR records confirms Reeder’s assessment. Burlington’s sewer system, which serves roughly 55,000 customers, has spilled almost 8.6 million gallons of sewage since 2004, nearly half of that coming in the Jan. 27 spill. Of that amount, an estimated 4.4 million gallons reached state waters.

OWASA, a comparably sized system, reported less than 140,000 gallons spilled during that time, of which more than 118,000 gallons reached the surface water.

The aging Burlington line that failed Jan. 27 was laid on rigid granite, Davis said, and did not have the flexibility to prevent cracks when running water moves the pipes. If it were built today, the pipe would be laid on a gravel bed to offer a cushion. However, city sewer officials did not know how the pipe was laid until it was excavated, Davis said, adding he’s not sure how to seek out these problem pipes before they break.

“I don’t know how we could account for every piece of pipe,” he said. According to state and local officials, it would take billions of dollars, necessitating state and federal funds or steep rate increases for municipal sewer customers.

Preventing spills is not cheap nor easy Reeder said. “That’s not just a North Carolina problem. That’s a nationwide problem.”

But this morning six weeks later, as she stands in the chilly mist kicked up by the Haw River dam, Chiosso seems emboldened by Mark’s message to a dead father. It seems more than ever like a problem worth solving.

“I’m glad I came out here,” she says. “I didn’t expect to find something sweet.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Sewage spill into haw “catastrophic” “