The SePro Corporation is receiving as much as $1.3 million in taxpayer money to chemically kill the algae in Jordan Lake, but the company is keeping key details of its proposal — including a full ingredient list of the products and the amounts to be released — secret from the public.
The proposed chemical treatment of a drinking water source for 300,000 people is yet another questionable technique backed by some lawmakers and business interests, who have been reluctant to instead enforce rules limiting development in the Jordan Lake watershed.
SePro’s proposals were marked “confidential,” but Policy Watch obtained them under the state’s public records law. However, more than half of the eight-page document had been redacted by SePro, under a state statute allowing companies to refuse to divulge material they deem as proprietary or a trade secret.
“Without more information, this is a useless document,” said Marc Alperin, associate professor in the UNC Marine Sciences Department, who reviewed the proposal at Policy Watch’s request. Alperin is also studying the lake sediment for the NC Policy Collaboratory, a think tank at UNC funded by the legislature. “The proposal lacks sufficient detail. It’s not done seriously.”
The NC Department of Environmental Quality has an unaltered version. However, had DEQ made it public, SePro could have sued the agency for revealing alleged proprietary information. The company did just that in Florida in 2003, filing suit against that state’s Department of Environmental Protection in a similar case. SePro won on appeal.
DEQ officials say they have asked SePro to publicly release the hidden information. “We will pursue the disclosure of the redacted material,” said DEQ Communications Director Jamie Kritzer. State law also requires redactions to be accompanied by an explanation, which, Kritzer said, the department has also requested.
(If the project is ultimately approved, emergency management officials and first responders would have access to full list of chemicals and their ingredients, plus materials safety data sheets.)
The Indiana-based company has research and development offices in Whitakers and a distribution hub in Rocky Mount. SePro CEO Bill Culpepper is an NC State University alumnus, a major fundraiser for the university and a Nash County native. Three company officials who are in charge of the Jordan Lake project did not respond to written questions from Policy Watch.
A fourth referred all questions to DEQ’s communications staff.
The question of how to clean up pollution in Jordan Lake has been problematic since the US Army Corps of Engineers built the reservoir out of farm fields in the 1970s and 1980s. In this rapidly growing area of central North Carolina, runoff from residential and commercial developments includes fertilizers and pet manure, which then flow into the lake or its tributaries.
These contaminants contain nitrogen, which along with phosphorus, are known as nutrients. And a large amount of nutrients in the lake is like an all-you-can eat buffet for gluttonous algae.
But like a party guest that won’t leave, algae have worn out their welcome. An abundance of these microscopic plants, noticeable when they create a green sheen on the surface, can block out the light to deeper areas of the lake. When algae sink into darker water, they decompose resulting in lower the oxygen levels which has the potential of killing fish and other forms of aquatic life.
Consistent problems with over-abundance of algae have placed Morgan Creek and the Upper New Hope sections on the federal list of impaired waters for chlorophyll-a —which indicates the concentration of algae — turbidity (cloudiness) and pH (acidity or alkalinity).
This is why the algae must be killed.
Two years ago, lawmakers tried funding SolarBees, which were supposed to churn the lake water and prevent algae from growing. The $1 million project failed. ln 2009, lawmakers passed Jordan Lake rules that would have more strictly regulated housing and commercial development in the watershed. But special interests, such as the real estate lobby, chafed at the regulations. As a result, the legislature has repeatedly delayed the implementation of the rules.
Now lawmakers, reluctant to use the regulatory hammer, are trying chemicals.
SePro’s proposals short on details, long on omissions
SePro has been angling for a contract to treat the lake for at least a year. As Policy Watch reported in May, the company’s lobbyist Harold Brubaker, a former House Speaker, strong-armed state environmental officials under the previous administration into considering a proposal.
In a series of emails, DEQ scientists and staff argued that SePro had failed to show “proof of concept.”
But DEQ’s concerns were apparently overruled when, as part of the state budget, lawmakers gave SePro a lucrative no-bid contract to try to remove algae from the lake.
SePro submitted four proposals, dated November and December of 2016 and April and May of this year. The first proposal would have targeted 2,665 acres of the Upper New Hope Arm; subsequent revisions scaled back the acreage to 750 acres of the Morgan Creek Arm. No reason for the change was given in the unredacted portion, but some of these treatments are extremely expensive. The company maintains in the proposals that this approach has been used in reservoirs nationally, although there are no independent, peer-reviewed articles available to evaluate whether these efforts were successful or not.
In the November 2016 version, DEQ poses several technical questions and concerns to SePro about the proposal: the cost and frequency of applications, especially for a 14,000-acre lake; the potential harm to other parts of the lake and downstream areas and the toxicity of copper sulfate.
Copper sulfate was originally proposed to be used as an algaecide. However, it can sicken or kill birds, particularly bald eagles, DEQ noted in communications with SePro.
SePro provides an answer, but not to the question. Nor does the company provide a definitive answer to the possibility that copper could build up in the sediment and move downstream.
Most of the description of the treatment methods have been blacked out. Of the visible portions, a vital issue is apparently missing from the SePro proposal. “There is nothing proposed to tackle the problem of excessive nitrogen in the lake,” said UNC Distinguished Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences Hans Paerl. Like Alperin, Paerl is studying nutrients in Jordan Lake for the NC Policy Collaboratory. He also reviewed the proposal at Policy Watch’s request.
Nitrogen flows into the lake from various sources, including lawn and agricultural fertilizers and stormwater runoff from development sites. Nitrogen feeds algae, including toxic forms that can contaminate waters downstream.
Excluding nitrogen from the proposal would be a major oversight. As is another potential shortcoming involving Phoslock. A trademarked SePro product, it would be used to “bind” phosphorus to the lake bottom. One of Phoslock’s ingredients is lanthanum, a soft metal, which is embedded in a “clay matrix.”
The full ingredient list is a trade secret, as is the amount to be used. SePro officials do note that lanthanum and copper are “naturally occurring.” This phrase is often used by the chemical industry to try to assuage concerns about the potential toxicity of their products.
Even if Phoslock is harmless, “there is no assurance that it will keep the phosphorus permanently tied up in the lake sediments,” Paerl said.
Shallow lakes, such as Jordan, tend to undergo what is known as “vertical mixing.” In other words, wind generates waves on the lake. In turn, the waves churn the water and resuspend the sediment on the bottom, potentially releasing phosphorus. And phosphorus-rich sediments entering the lake from river and creeks, during heavy rains, for example, would have to be treated in addition to phosphorus sources already in the lake. These additional steps would eventually lead to spiraling costs without any assurance that these treatments would be effective in the long run.
But according to DEQ emails from last year, SePro suggested the use of a copper sulfate-based product to kill the algae. Unfortunately, copper sulfate is toxic to other aquatic life and birds.
The visible portions of the most recent proposal say that a peroxide-based algaecide, Pak 27, would be used. However, it’s unclear if this would be used instead of, or in tandem with the copper. And some ingredients in Pak 27 are proprietary. Nor is it public how much of the algaecide would be used.
SePro’s proposal does not address the problem of toxins being released from potentially toxic blue green algae (or cyanobacteria) as they are killed. When algae die, of natural or chemical causes, they release what are known as endotoxins into the water. Water treatment plants would then be faced with having to remove these toxins.
“Killing the algae doesn’t deal with the basic problem of too many nutrients, which will remain in the lake and be recycled for nourishing future algae blooms,” Paerl said. “And the fate of either the copper-containing algaecide or released toxins in the lake’s food chain is uncertain.”
Proposal requires federal approval, public comment
DEQ has not yet signed a formal contract with SePro. The US Army Corps of Engineers must approve the proposal before chemicals can be added to Jordan Lake. Lisa Parker, spokeswoman for the USACE, said the agency has not received a proposal from the company. Should the USACE initially approve the treatment, an environmental assessment would be required and would include a public notice and opportunity for public comment. Federal discharge permits for the application of the algaecide and phosphorus-locking technology would also be required.
The Triangle Water Supply Monitoring Project, a partnership of area city and town utilities that depend on or affect Jordan Lake, only recently received an overview of the SePro plan. Jen Schmitz is the principal planner in water resources at the Triangle J Council of Governments. She said that the project partners, which include Cary, Apex, Durham, Hillsborough and Morrisville, have not had time to assess how the project could affect the lake’s water quality or quantity.
Even without public access to the full information, the recent state budget mandates that Phase I of the pilot project — sampling by state environmental officials in the Morgan Creek arm — begin within three weeks.
Phase II, the chemical treatments, could begin next spring.
“The public would be interested in what chemicals are being put into the lake,” Alperin said. “It’s a big deal.”
Review SePro’s project documents below: