Consent Decree Information & FAQs

CFPUA Reaches Agreement with EPA on Sewer Overflows
Consent Decree mirrors CFPUA’s ongoing effort to continue minimizing sewer overflows; confirms comprehensive work already being conducted to dramatically reduce incidents.

Press Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (May 8, 2013)
CONTACT: Mike McGill, 910-332-6704
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Wilmington, NC (May 8, 2013): The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) announced today that it has joined in a comprehensive Consent Decree agreement with the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) in an effort to continue minimizing, reducing and eliminating sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). The agreement resolves claims by the USEPA regarding overflows in the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County’s systems, which became CFPUA’s systems in July of 2008.

Under the Consent Decree, CFPUA is required to complete more than $40 million of specific capital improvement projects, institute reporting requirements and pay specified penalties for future SSOs. To date, CFPUA has voluntarily completed more than $27 million dollars’ worth of these projects in keeping with its Capacity, Management, Operations and Maintenance (CMOM) program, which was implemented after the transfer of the City and County systems to CFPUA in July of 2008. The program, which includes a proactive reporting structure, has already reduced SSOs by more than 35% and sewer spill volume by nearly 80% in the recent years. CFPUA will also pay a civil penalty of $180,000 and provide New Hanover County with a $240,000 grant to upgrade sewer laterals, septic system in lower income households as part of the stipulated specific capital improvement projects. Funding for the penalty will come from the City of Wilmington, which has been holding water and sewer funds for this purpose. The funds were withheld when assets were transferred to the Authority under the Interlocal Agreement in 2008.

“We have developed and implemented a proactive approach that addresses the issues raised by our aging sewer infrastructure,” said Matt Jordan, Chief Executive Office for CFPUA. “Much of the work outlined in the Consent Decree has already been completed or is well on its way to completion and we are already seeing signs of its success. The Authority’s actions are being viewed favorably by the USEPA and the state and that led to a reduction of the penalties and the requirements of this agreement.”

“Aging infrastructure is a national problem. When you look at other Consent Decrees in place across the country, it is to everyone’s credit that we are already well on our way to fulfilling this commitment to improve our wastewater system,” said Jim Quinn, CFPUA Chairman and a former Wilmington City Councilman. “There’s still more work to be done but real and tangible progress is being made.”

Back in 2009, the North Carolina Department of Water Quality stated in a letter to the USEPA that “actions already taken by CFPUA in associations with the Department of Water Quality’s fulfilled Special Order of Consent and other in-place [DWQ] programmatic mechanisms address most of the elements of the proposed Consent Decree.” The Decree terminates after CFPUA has properly implemented its CMOM for 24 months and completed its specific capital improvements.

The proposed Consent Decree agreed to today by CFPUA’s board is subject to a 30-day comment period and final court approval. It is posted on the CFPUA website, along with a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) below detailing its key provisions.

Consent Decree Document (PDF)


FAQs
What is a Consent Decree?
A Consent Decree is a negotiated settlement of a lawsuit approved by a court. In this case, the Consent Decree is an agreement between the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the State of North Carolina and the United States Environmental Protection Agency to resolve claims by the USEPA regarding sanitary sewer overflows in the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County’s wastewater systems, which became CFPUA’s systems in 2008.

Why is CFPUA entering into a Consent Decree?
The Consent Decree process began in 2007, following a number of sanitary sewer overflows in the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County’s wastewater systems. CFPUA is now responsible for these sewer systems and the Consent Decree allows CFPUA to avoid litigation over past overflows while receiving acknowledgment for its current short and long-term plans that are already reducing the number and size of sanitary sewer overflows.

What is a sanitary sewer system?
A sanitary sewer system collects wastewater and takes it away from homes and businesses through a system of pipes and pump stations to wastewater treatment plants. The system is separate from a city and/or county’s stormwater systems.

How extensive is CFPUA’s sanitary sewer system?
CFPUA’s sanitary sewer system consists of 2 large wastewater treatment plants, which process millions of gallons of wastewater a day. CFPUA also operates one small wastewater treatment plant in Walnut Hills that treats 100,000 gallons a day.

CFPUA sends its flow to wastewater treatment plants through a network of more than 900 miles of sewer mains. If our sewer mains were laid end to end, they would extend from downtown Wilmington to the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The service area is a low-lying coastal area with an average elevation of 40 feet above sea level. Although the wastewater collection system operates primarily on gravity flow, 141 pump stations are required to convey flow across the system to the treatment plants.

What is a sanitary sewer overflow or SSO?
A sanitary sewer overflow is an unauthorized discharge of untreated sewage from a wastewater system.

What are the main causes for an SSO?
  • Sanitary sewer overflows are caused mainly by fats, oils and grease that enter the system as liquids through residences and businesses. The liquids then solidify and clog the sewer pipes. Other causes of SSOs include: Collapsed pipes
  • Debris accumulation
  • Excessive infiltration and inflow into the mains
  • Pipe blockages caused by illegal dumping
  • Pump station failures
  • Tree roots
What is CFPUA doing to stop SSOs?
CFPUA has invested, and will continue to invest, in proactive sewer maintenance, repair and replacement programs. Since its inception in 2008, CFPUA has worked under a Capacity, Management, Operations and Maintenance program for its sanitary sewer system. The program, called CMOM for short, provides the Authority with a comprehensive, regularly updated gameplan to constantly improve CFPUA programs and practices when it comes to its sanitary sewer system.

How is CFPUA performing when it comes to reducing SSOs?
Between 2008 and 2013, as a result of the implementation of the CMOM and the hard work of CFPUA staff, sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) have been reduced by nearly 40% and the overflow volume - the amount of wastewater spilled into the environment - has been cut by approximately 80%.

Back in 2009, the State of North Carolina’s Department of Water Quality [DWQ], in a letter to the EPA, stated it “…believes actions already taken by CFPUA in association with DWQ’s fulfilled Special Order of Consent and other in-place DWQ programmatic mechanisms address most of the elements of the proposed Consent Decree.”

How common are consent decrees?
Since the 1990s, the federal government has issued numerous consent decrees to wastewater utilities for the occurrence of SSOs in their sewer systems. Jurisdictions which have joined into consent decrees in recent years include:
Seattle and King County, Washington
Los Angeles, California
Washington, DC
San Diego, California
Baltimore City and County, Maryland
Mobile, Alabama
Knoxville, Tennessee
Cincinnati, Ohio
Hartford, Connecticut
St. Louis, Missouri

What is CFPUA required to do under the consent decree?
1) CFPUA will submit its CMOM to the EPA for approval. (CFPUA pre-submitted its CMOM to the EPA and has received tentative approval. Final acceptance of the CMOM is scheduled for when the decree is formally instituted.)

2) CFPUA will complete a list of specific capital improvement projects, many of which have already been completed. These include the Northeast Interceptor (NEI) Assessment, NEI Phase 1 Improvements and Force Main Relocation, electrical improvements to key pump stations and the Ogden Interceptor Replacement. Projects that remain to be completed are the NEI Northside Force Main (Contract 1B) and NEI Rehabilitation Phase 2 projects. Both are slated to be completed by the end of 2014.

3) As a result of the past sanitary sewer overflows that required the creation of the Consent Decree, CFPUA will pay a civil penalty of $180,000 and provide New Hanover County with a $240,000 grant to upgrade sewer laterals and septic systems in lower income households. Funding for the penalty will come from the City of Wilmington, which has been holding water and sewer funds for this purpose. The funds were withheld when assets were transferred to the Authority under the Interlocal Agreement in 2008.

4) CFPUA will provide quarterly reports and semi-annual Consent Decree-specific progress reports to the EPA.

5) CFPUA will also pay stipulated penalties for every SSO that occurs while it is under the Consent Decree. These penalties vary depending on the amount of the spill and when it takes place under the Decree.

Is there anything I can do to help?
As stated earlier, fats, oil and grease (FOG) clogging our sewer mains is the number one cause of sanitary sewer overflows. You can help us to “cease the grease” by NOT pouring leftover FOG from your cooking or household use down the drain while they are hot and still liquid. FOG doesn’t stay that way for long and end up hardening, clogging our sewers when they cool.

We ask you to use a used metal can of, say, vegetables or coffee and carefully pour the fats, oils and grease from your cooking into the can. If you have a lid for the can, you should use one. You can then let the FOG cool under your sink or place it in your refrigerator. You can use the can several times or throw it away after its first use. Either way, those fats, oils and grease are kept out of our sewer system. CFPUA has special lids available in its Customer Service area at its offices on 235 Government Center Drive in Wilmington.

How will these efforts help protect the Cape Fear River or other waterways?
With your help, we can cut the number of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and benefit the Cape Fear River and other waterways by reducing the likelihood that untreated sewage will enter these sensitive watersheds. The Authority has always been committed to fulfilling its mission to protect our natural resources, as evidenced by the reduction of SSOs over the past 5 years. The steps outlined in the Consent Decree provide an additional way we can continue to ensure we meet the community’s environmental needs.

How long will CFPUA be under the Consent Decree? How does it end?
The Consent Decree will terminate after CFPUA has operated under its EPA-approved CMOM for 24 months and completed the specific capital improvements under the Decree.