Belhaven reports sewage spill during deluge

Published 7:28 pm Thursday, September 30, 2010

Staff Writer

BELHAVEN — Surging floodwaters overtaxed the Town of Belhaven’s wastewater-treatment system Thursday.
The sustained swamping led to a treated-sewage spill, overwhelming the system’s capacity to handle waste from Northside High School and Northeast Elementary School, both of which were closed Thursday because of inclement weather.
Northeast and Northside will remain closed today because of the complications with the area sewer system, said Sarah Hodges, spokeswoman for Beaufort County Schools.
Hodges was unsure when the schools would reopen, and she pointed out the fact that the doors have to remain closed while the two schools’ restrooms are off limits.
“We have to respect the physical limitations of their (sewer) system,” said Don Phipps, schools superintendent.
The extent of the effluent overflow was unknown Thursday afternoon, said Town Manager Guinn Leverett.
“It’s not like a release of raw sewage, it’s a release of a very dilute product,” Leverett said, adding there was no threat to public health.
As often happens during coastal storms, a wind-driven tidal surge combined with runoff from torrential rains to cover a number of Belhaven’s streets — and push the 1 million-gallon-per-day wastewater-treatment system beyond its limit.
“Almost certainly that will happen when we have this much water going through,” Leverett said.
Much of the treatment system’s infrastructure is old and close to sea level in this flood-prone area, he said.
“Down here, we’re in single-digit elevation,” Leverett commented.
The town is planning a sewer-upgrade project, and it could get at least partial financing for the initiative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.
The project would result in rerouting and upgrading a number of the system’s lines, which would go a long way toward solving inflow and outflow problems, according to Leverett.
In response to the spill, the town will follow reporting procedures prescribed by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Water Quality, he said.
DWQ has the power to fine municipalities when wastewater spills occur, but it wasn’t clear whether that would happen because of Thursday’s emergency occurrence.
Other than the wastewater issue, few storm-tied mishaps were reported in Belhaven by midafternoon.
Following standard practice, town workers relocated a police dispatcher from the old Town Hall on Main Street, which usually floods during visits from vigorous nor’easters and tropical systems — and Thursday’s storm, though nontropical, was no exception.
“If this building floods, we’re all in trouble,” Leverett observed from his office in the “new” Town Hall, a less-aged structure that houses most of the local government’s operations.
During his interview, Leverett was told a town employee was responding to a call about a tree limb that had fallen on a power line, but electrical outages seemed to be the exception rather than the rule here.
The town already had been drenched with around 10 inches of rain by early afternoon Thursday, “and we’re not done yet,” Leverett said, adding the weather situation was “marginally worse than the forecast” had indicated.
Much of Main Street was barricaded as the waters rose, and small waves lapped against the town’s boarded-up Senior Center. Still, most businesses appeared to be open, and residents looked as if they were taking the flooding in stride.
Winds blowing off Pantego Creek and the Pungo River tipped over a handful of trash cans and caused boats to bob at slips along the waterfront, but no structural damage could be seen during a drive through town.
A tree had fallen over part of N.C. Highway 99 in the vicinity of Ransomville, but limbs that had blocked one lane had been cleared away by early afternoon.
Outside the Belhaven Community Chamber of Commerce, Amanda Selby waited for a ride home after a visit to the doctor’s office.
Selby said she was involved in a weather-related wreck Wednesday near Greensboro, and that her car had been totaled in the incident.
“I’m fine,” she said of her post-accident health, adding she’d had precautionary X-rays taken.
Selby, who lives about five miles outside of town, said, “It is stormy, rainy and our yard looks like a pond.”
The young woman, who works at the Belhaven Andy’s restaurant, confirmed Thursday’s gales and torrents were business as usual for this town.
“Usually, when we even get rain for one day it looks like this,” she said, nodding toward the puddled streets.