The state has fined a southern Granville County wastewater treatment plant more than $27,000 in the last five years, prompting local citizens to question its discharge permit, which is up for renewal.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources levied the fines for several violations including extraordinarily high levels of mercury in water leaving the facility. And in February, the state’s Division of Water Quality sent the Southern Granville Water and Sewer Authority a letter of violation for excessive amounts of antimony in its discharge.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for NC, is among many environmental watchdogs concerned the plant won’t be able to handle additional wastewater from the new psychiatric facility, scheduled to open later this year in Butner, or the proposed National Bio and Agro Defense Facility that also could be sited in Butner.

For NBAF alone, the plant could have to receive and treat an estimated 80,000 gallons of pretreated wastewater.

“We’re concerned about groundwater contamination and well water,” Taylor said, adding she believes local industries aren’t adequately pretreating their water before it arrives at SGWASA. “If there’s nothing to filter it at the upper end, it comes in unfiltered. We see it as a transfer of liability.”

Susan Massengale, spokesperson for the N.C. Division of Water Quality, agrees that the plant’s main problem is its pretreatment system, including working with local industrial customers, such as Hanes Dye & Finishing in Butner, to ensure they are pretreating their own waste before sending it to SGWASA.

“The plant itself is being run pretty well, but we really need them to have the paperwork to back up the monitoring they need to be doing,” Massengale said. “They need to be managing the pretreatment program appropriately.”

When Butner was under state jurisdiction, the treatment plant was run by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. From 2005-2007, the plant was non-compliant with the Clean Water Act in every quarter, according to Environmental Protection Agency documents. In 2005, the plant reported mercury levels in discharged water that exceeded allowable amounts by 7,500 percent.

Treated wastewater from the SGWASA plant flows into Knap of Reeds Creek, a section of which has been listed as impaired by the EPA since at least 2000. According to the EPA, the causes for the impairment are unknown, but the creek, a tributary at the north end of Falls Lake, as been flagged as a high priority. Falls Lake is Raleigh’s primary source of drinking water and a popular fishing spot.

Mercury can be found in fish because when the element enters water it settles in the sediment, where bacteria convert it to methylmercury. Fish absorb methylmercury when they feed on smaller organisms.

After Butner incorporated as its own town last year, it had to form a governing body, the SGWASA, to oversee the plant’s operations. According to the EPA, the plant was in compliance during the fourth quarter of 2007. No data is yet available for early 2008.

The public can send written comments on the draft permit through May 28; submit them to Water Quality Section Chief, 1617 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699. Be sure to include SGWASA’s permit number, NC0026824.

Verbal comments will also be accepted at a June 19 public hearing in Raleigh, during which several facilities’ permits will be discussed.