News

Results: Rocky Mount spill definitely raw sewage

Environmental, Sanitary Sewer Overflows, Sound Rivers, Stormwater, Stormwater Issues, Tar-Pamlico Watershed, Water Quality

Posted on January 11th, 2024

With every cell glowing beneath a black light, test results for water samples taken at both the spill site and just downstream in the Tar River show an "off the charts" amount of the bacteria E. coli.

Bacteria levels in water spilling from beneath a manhole cover in Rocky Mount on Wednesday point to untreated sewage.

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Katey Zimmerman took the samples on Wednesday near the train tracks on Albemarle Avenue — a site known for its reoccurring wastewater spills — as well as just downstream of the site in the nearby Tar River. Test results for both were “off the charts” for E. coli.

In 2023, five separate spills were documented at the Albemarle Avenue location; a total of 1.3 million gallons of untreated sewage was spilled into the street and two storm drains located within feet of the manhole.

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Katey Zimmerman holds up a sample she took just downstream of the outfall into the Tar River, close to the Albemarle Avenue sewage spill.

“This is an ongoing problem that definitely needs to be fixed. This manhole is located right next to storm drains, so it’s essentially putting untreated sewage straight into Tar River,” Katey said.

Though North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued three notices of violation and a small fine to the city for the sewage spills last year, it’s unclear what steps Rocky Mount has taken to address the ongoing issue. Katey reached out to several city officials on Wednesday, but has not received a response.  

According to NCDEQ data, the sewage spills on Albemarle Avenue have been occurring regularly since 2021.

“In the past, the city’s response has been that the untreated sewage is so diluted with stormwater that it poses no threat to health or water quality. The spill I saw on Wednesday definitely looked and smelled like sewage — and that’s what’s going straight into our waterways,” Katey said.

The video below was taken by Katey at the spill site on Wednesday. In it, wastewater can be seen pouring out from underneath the manhole cover.

Update: The City of Rocky Mount put out a press release on Thursday afternoon that says heavy rains were responsible for the sanitary sewer overflow. The overflow began at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning and lasted until 9:30 p.m. that night.

“Due to the saturated soil conditions and the roughly 2.0 inches of rain experienced locally, the sewer collection system was overwhelmed with heavily diluted wastewater,” said Brenton Bent, Rocky Mount Water Resources Director. “The heavily diluted nature of the wastewater and the unusually high flows in the receiving water bodies helped to reduce the potential impact of this event.”

City officials estimated that 60,000 gallons of sewage reached the Tar River during the overflow.

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