Charlotte officials say several thousand gallons of a potentially dangerous chemical compound were dumped illegally into a city sewer Thursday and flowed into a wastewater treatment plant.
City Manager Ron Carlee stressed that the dumping of PCB-tainted materials did not affect the city’s drinking water system.
And officials said they do not think the dumping was an attempt to harm anyone.
“Let me make this very clear,” Carlee said in an early-morning news conference. “The illegal dumping does not affect the water supply.”
He said the plant was shut down when the chemical was detected but has returned to operation.
Instead, officials said, the possible threat is to animals or humans who come in contact with water downstream from the Mallard Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in northeast Mecklenburg County near the Cabarrus County line.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Director Barry Gullet said “downstream” from the treatment plant is along Mallard Creek into Cabarrus County, and then into the Rocky River.
The Rocky River flows through Cabarrus County, along the Stanly-Union county line, and then joins the Pee Dee River near the Anson County line.
City officials said the dumping was detected around midday Thursday. They also said they believe they have determined where the chemicals were dumped into the sewer system.
“We think we have traced it back to a sanitary sewer near West Sugar Creek Road and W.T. Harris Boulevard,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Det. Rob Klass.
Officials said there is a Food Lion store near that sewer but said the store is not suspected in the case.
Carlee said authorities surmise a septic truck probably dumped the materials into the sewer. The materials then flowed through the sewer system about 10 miles to the Mallard Creek plant.
“We are looking at a time frame from late Wednesday night to early Thursday,” Klass said.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have been banned in the country since the 1970s, Gullet said, but could be found in some equipment.
Klass said he does not believe “there was an attempt to harm anyone. What we have learned from similar incidents elsewhere is that it is usually the result of someone trying to save money.”
While PCB’s are banned, they are still found in the environment in transformers and other devices built before the late 1970s. Gullet said it is very expensive to dispose of PCB’s, and he suspects someone dumped the chemicals illegally in an attempt to save money.
Gullet said employees at the Mallard Creek plant were tipped off to the chemical dump when they saw “a sheen” on water in the retaining pond. Crews collected the materials, and the city will dispose of them.
“I anticipate it will be quite expensive for the city to dispose of them,” Carlee said.
Klass said the person or persons responsible for the dumping face a state charge of dumping a toxic substance. But he said local authorities also are working with federal officials, and federal charges are possible.
Carlee said crews cleaned the water at the Mallard Creek plant, but when asked if he was sure the water was safe downstream from the plant, he said, “We cannot be certain of that.”
“We are asking people downstream from the plant to avoid contact with the water until we have been able to do additional testing,” he added.
Klass said police are asking anyone who might have seen suspicious activity near the Food Lion store late Wednesday or early Thursday to call 911 or leave information with Crime Stoppers, 704-334-1600.