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Ethanol spill flows into sewage treatment plant

By Elisabeth Arriero, April Bethea and Steve Lyttle
abethea@charlotteobserver.com slyttle@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg authorities said Sunday that ethanol was illegally discharged in south Charlotte and flowed into the Sugar Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, but they don’t believe the incident was related to the dumping of material containing PCBs in north Charlotte last week.

Although authorities initially suspected the material at the Sugar Creek plant contained PCBs, which is environmental contaminant that has been banned since 1979, they determined Sunday that it was ethanol, a flammable and colorless liquid that is often used as a fuel and solvent

They said neither event posed a threat to drinking water, but they asked people to avoid human or animal contact with water from Little Sugar Creek. And they advised residents to avoid human or animal contact with Mallard Creek and the Rocky River in Cabarrus County until more testing is completed.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said authorities hadn’t determined whether the latest spill was accidental or intentional, but they didn’t believe the two incidents were related.

“It appears to be coincidental, strangely coincidental,” Carlee said.

They also didn’t know how much ethanol was discharged or where it entered the sewage system.

During a 4 a.m. news conference Sunday, Charlotte officials said workers at the Sugar Creek plant noticed an unusual odor in wastewater flowing into the plant around 8:45 p.m. Saturday.

The city closed the Sugar Creek plant, and wastewater was diverted to an isolated containment pond on plant property.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Director Barry Gullet and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Maj. Johnny Jennings said during the news conference that preliminary tests from the second incident suggested PCBs were in the water.

Hours later, however, authorities said the chemical was ethanol, a motor fuel.

Cam Coley, a spokesman for CMUD, said the department was testing the wastewater that was flowing into the plant but was not treating it.

Coley said he hoped the test would show them “what we’re dealing with so we can best treat the wastewater and make adjustments with our treatment process.”

On Friday, local officials said PCBs and other toxic chemicals were discovered in wastewater at the Mallard Creek Wastewater Plant in northeast Charlotte.

At the time, officials said they believed the chemicals were dumped into a sanitary sewer near the intersection of West Sugar Creek and W.T. Harris Boulevard, which is 10 miles from the sewer-treatment plant.

No arrests have been announced in that case.

That time, authorities warned residents downstream from the Mallard Creek plant to avoid contact with the water. Mallard Creek flows into the Rocky River, which traverses Cabarrus, Union, Stanly and Anson counties.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used in a wide variety of products, including electrical transformers and capacitors, caulk and paint, and can cause health problems if ingested in large doses.

CMPD detectives said Friday they didn’t think the dumping was meant to harm people.

Rather, they suspected it was an attempt by someone to avoid having to pay the costly fees for getting rid of compounds containing PCBs.

Carlee said Friday that the city would have to absorb the cost of disposing of the materials.

“I suspect that will be quite expensive,” he said.

On Sunday afternoon, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department opened an Emergency Operations Center to respond to both the spills.

The city has formed a task force comprised of representatives from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and Fire Departments, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol to investigate the incidents.

Charges may ultimately include a felony state charge of dumping of toxic substance and a felony federal charge of violation of the Clean Water Act, city spokeswoman Kim McMillan said in a statement.

On Sunday, Carlee encouraged residents to be vigilant. If they see an unidentified tanker truck putting something into the ground through a manhole or other means, they should call 911.

“If you see anything suspicious, call 911 so they can follow up immediately,” he said.

Anyone with information about the recent cases is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 704-334-1600.

Meanwhile, anyone with questions or concerns should call 311. Staff Reporter Bruce Henderson contributed.

Arriero: 704-358-5945; Twitter: @earriero
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