Sewage issues

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2007

By Staff
create a stink
The town of Atlantic Beach has a stinky problem.
Residents there, to a large degree, depend on septic tanks to treat their waste. That’s fine so long as the systems are designed properly and maintained. The problem is some of the systems don’t fall into either one of those categories.
An engineering report prepared for the town by W.K. Dickson &Co. of Raleigh says many septic tanks in town pollute groundwater and nearby estuarine waters, according to The Associated Press. That doesn’t bode well for either the property owners or the environment that draws thousands of visitors to the area.
The solution, building a central sewer system, seems like the obvious solution but it has sparked controversy.
— One issue is the cost. Some worry that the $60 million price tag will be just the tip of the iceberg.
— Another issue is fairness. If you’re a property owner who paid for a well-designed and functioning septic system, why should you be forced to switch because other property owners didn’t follow suit? Septic tank effluent contains all the liquid from your wastewater, which often includes bacteria, viruses, chemicals and other contaminants. The septic tank removes some wastes, but the septic tank effluent may still contain all the nasty stuff. The soil drain field provides further absorption and treatment, but if the effluent is not treated adequately, it may threaten ground water quality, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
— Perhaps the biggest issue is fear that once central sewer is available it will drive the price of property even higher and trigger development that will cause Atlantic Beach to lose the charm that brought people there in the first place. That’s clearly an issue many of us in eastern North Carolina can relate to.
Darrell Morgan, an Atlantic Beach resident who owns a marina, said he and other longtime residents like the ambience of a beach. There are small houses and small family-owned motels rather than high-rise condominiums and ritzy hotel chains. He thinks a sewer system will spark development.
Town Council member Jim Bailey isn’t buying that. He disputed claims that the sewer project will primarily benefit developers and spur unchecked growth. He said zoning and town ordinances can restrict density and height of development.
Opponents of the sewer project have recruited a slate of candidates — called the Ocean Six — to run in the town election in October on a platform of defeating the current Town Council and mayor as well as the sewer project would also.
They blame past engineering studies for a 41 percent increase in taxes and warn that approving a $60 million system will bring further costs. And they say many property owners won’t have a voice on an issue that will affect their pocketbooks because they live elsewhere and are not registered to vote in the Carteret County town.
Bailey says if the town is ever going to address the problems, it should do so while it has available land and money. He said the proposed project, which also would address problems with stormwater.
Clearly there are issues that must be addressed. The general manager of the Channel Marker restaurant says septic problems get worse after heavy rains saturate the ground. Toilets and drains back up, he said, and trucks that pipe sewage from septic tanks are common.
The restaurant and several others also have to regularly pump their sewage from storage tanks and send it elsewhere for treatment. Myers said it costs about $33,000 a year to maintain the private system. He said it would cost up to $3 million to have a system and drain field in Atlantic Beach, a cost he said is not financially feasible.
Some would argue that Atlantic Beach is just postponing the inevitable. Eventually pollution could cause environmental agencies to order the town to do something and that existing systems probably could not be rebuilt after a major storm.
There are alternatives, but none of them are cheap. A low-pressure system needs to be inspected every six months and an aerobic treatment unit must be inspected four times a year.
In the end, a central sewage system and proper growth management practices may be the solution.