Staff Report: Sound Rivers Shines Light on Sewage Spill Epidemic

Total number of spills by county from 2002-2017

Over 844 million gallons of untreated sewage was spilled or dumped into North Carolina’s public waterways between 2002-2017, according to a recent review by Sound Rivers. The analysis found very few penalties were levied against polluters, which are largely municipal entities with unmaintained infrastructure.

Using data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), your Riverkeepers mapped the 22,968 sewage spills, or sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), that occurred in the state between 2002-2017 — an average of 1500 spills per year. Areas with higher population densities typically had more sewage spills.

Raw human waste entering our communities and streams is a big concern, not just for the environment but for public health.The problem with these sewer overflows is  more critical than just human waste. These spills can contain anything that hasn’t made it to a treatment facility yet, including industrial waste. Perfluorinated compounds like GenX and other PFOA substances could be mixed with human fecal matter and urine, not to mention pharmaceuticals and a whole lot of other nasty stuff.

Large cities are not the only dischargers to blame. According to the data, even the modestly-sized city of Havelock has reported 13 spills since the end of 2015. Ten of these SSOs occurred from the same manhole, resulting in 324,900 gallons of raw waste entering the community and public waterways.

According to the data obtained by Sound Rivers, DEQ has imposed just $2,047 in fines against Havelock and for only 2 of the 13 spills.

Our analysis and mapping is believed to be the first of its kind in North Carolina. DEQ relies on self-reporting from polluters and does not make spill data readily available to the public.

Other states utilize more transparent and available records of sewage spills. For example, South Carolina’s Department of Health & Environmental Control maintains a website updated with information about spills as they are reported. Sound Rivers believes that North Carolinians deserve a modern notification system and more detailed reporting so people that are boating, fishing and swimming in our rivers can know when raw sewage is dumped into our communities and environment. Your Riverkeepers will keep you up-to-date on this issue on our website, in our weekly e-news, and in future editions of Currents.