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State Officials Reassured by Sewer Meeting

By Megan V. Williams

Wilmington, NC – A tidal wave of information about Wilmington's sewer repair plans, and a new list of short-term fixes, sent state legislators back to Raleigh saying they feel reassured with local actions.

Wilmington and New Hanover officials called for the meeting after reading in the Star-News that their legislative delegation was discussing the pace of sewer repairs and possible state actions. On their side, legislators say they've been getting an earful from concerned constituents.

State Representative Danny McComas said after the meeting that he was pleased officials took the time to answer his questions.

But McComas added, "Still, we're at the edge of our seats because we don't know what could happen tomorrow."

McComas and his colleagues all said they'll continue to follow the sewer issue closely.

McComas and representative Carolyn Justice said they intend to enter a house bill giving the city of Wilmington limited powers of eminent domain over land needed for sewer repairs. Senator Julia Boseman introduced a similar bill in the Senate last week.

Local officials used Thursday's meeting to roll out a long list of actions Wilmington says will ease the burden on the Northeast Interceptor Sewer Line. The city is under a moratorium banning new sewer connections to the NEI until it makes several repairs to the line, a goal the city hopes to reach by next April.

At the top of the list of proposed measures is shifting ever-larger amounts of sewerage to the city's Northside Treatment plant, which itself is going through a multi-year expansion. That change will require state approval to lift the plants allowed capacity. Officials are also trying to reduce the amount of stormwater infiltrating the system.

To signal their intentions, Wilmington officials are now offering to sign a Special Order of Consent with the state's Department of Water Quality, setting strict deadlines for mandated sewer repairs. The contract would carry fines if the city misses its goals.

Coastkeeper Mike Giles has long urged the city to enter into such a Consent Order.

Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo says the city took this step at this time to reassure the Department of Water Quality and local citizens that they are actually moving on sewer repairs.

Saffo said at the meeting that a consent agreement creating an actual document public could tape to the refrigerator door or put by their desks to "check off as we're doing these things. It will give everyone an assurance that we feel strong enough about this to put it in writing."

Representatives from the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources observed the meeting. When asked by Justice if the department was satisfied with that they were hearing, Assistant Secretary Robin Smith said she was "very impressed with the efforts" the three local governments were making.

Yesterday's sewer meeting was attended by Representatives McComas and Justice and Senator Boseman. Representative Thomas Wright was invited but did not arrive.