This is the first of two stories about Jordan Lake. Tomorrow read about the UNC Collaboratory’s findings on algae and pollution in the reservoir.
It seemed like a bad idea at the time. Now, confirming the concerns of many scientists, environmental advocates and even some lawmakers, a plan to chemically treat a portion of Jordan Lake is even worse. The US Army Corps of Engineers has concluded that a proposal by the private company SePro to use chemicals to kill algae in Jordan Lake would irreparably harm the drinking water source for more than 300,000 people.
In a letter to the Division of Water Resources, the Corps rejected the proposal, worth $1.3 million to SePro. The Corps, which built the reservoir on an old tobacco farm in the 1970s and 1980s, has legal jurisdiction over Jordan Lake. Without its approval, the plan can’t proceed. The treatment segment of the project was scheduled to begin in March 2019.
And for the first time, the Corps’ letter reveals there was a plan in the works to conduct a similar pilot project for Falls Lake.
The Jordan Lake plan called for using algaecides and other chemicals, as well as dumping as many as 350 tons of chemically treated clay fill into 300 acres of the Morgan Creek Arm. That amount is for only one treatment, and is similar in scale, the Corps wrote, to a bridge replacement or road widening project.
SePro would be unwilling to remove the fill after the pilot program ended, because it would be too expensive, according to the letter. “Cost is not an acceptable justification for not addressing the adverse impact,” the Corps countered.
Cost is not an acceptable justification for not addressing the adverse impact
The permanent loss of water storage volume, the Corps wrote, “is an unacceptable adverse impact” to all five of the lake’s congressionally authorized purposes: water supply, flood control, public recreation, fish and wildlife, and downstream water quality.
The chemicals contained in the algaecide could harm aquatic life, and lanthanum, a soft metal compound of phosphorus-locking clay, “would likely accumulate in certain tissues of fish in the lake” the Corps wrote. In some instances, the chemical harm is unknown, but state officials believe the number of the fish would decrease, harming not only the wildlife that feed on them, but cutting into the recreational use of the reservoir.
Although the state submitted the 114-page proposal in October, it was not the Department of Environmental Quality’s idea. SePro had hired former House Speaker-turned-lobbyist Harold Brubaker to muscle a $1.3 million appropriation through both chambers. The legislature responded by slipping in an 11th-hour provision to earmark the money to an unnamed contractor – whose qualifications could have only been SePro’s – for a pilot chemical treatment.
The bill language required the state department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to conduct sampling and then, pending Corps approval, facilitate SePro’s chemical plan. However, as of October, DEQ had not signed a contract with the Indiana-based company. Founded by an NC State University alumus with deep ties to the chemical industry, SePro also has facilities in Rocky Mount and Whitakers.
Brubaker did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The question of how to clean up pollution in Jordan Lake has dogged the legislature for nearly a decade, since 2009, when lawmakers passed rules that would have more strictly regulated in particular, housing and commercial development. But special interests, such as the real estate lobby, chafed at the regulations. As a result, lawmakers have repeatedly delayed the implementation of the rules. Instead, they have floated other initiatives, including SolarBees, which were supposed to churn the water and prevent algae from growing. The $1 million project failed.
An overgrowth of algae can tax water treatment plants that must filter the microorganisms from finished water. Some types of algae are toxic and can sicken people or animals that touch or ingest the contaminated water.
Parts of Jordan Lake are designated as “impaired” on the federal government’s official list of such waters because of several factors, including the presence of chlorophyll a, an energy source for algae.
SePro had proposed a chemical treatment for Jordan Lake to DEQ in 2016. Emails obtained by Policy Watch indicated that DEQ scientists disapproved of the proposal, citing a lack of information and potential environmental impacts of a copper-based algaecide. The EPA also chimed in, stating that chemical treatments could run afoul of the Clean Water Act.
Undaunted, SePro responded with an alternate proposal using a peroxide-based chemical known as Pak27. Under the proposal, as much as 280 million pounds of Pak27 would be sprayed in the Morgan Arm as many as eight times — either in a single day or over a longer period. Although less toxic than copper-based compounds, Pak27 could kill zooplankton, which other organisms depend on for food, DEQ wrote.
In the proposal, DEQ outlined a sampling and monitoring plan to track any effects of SePro’s various treatments.
Adding to the concern, the proposal was largely secret. Public copies of SePro’s proposal were heavily redacted because the company claimed the details were proprietary. UNC scientists contacted by Policy Watch could not evaluate the plan because there was so little public information.
Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly, commended the Corps’ decision to not approve the state’s proposal. She told Policy Watch that the watchdog group “is appalled that the General Assembly funded this algaecide project, which would do nothing to actually clean up ongoing nutrient pollution into the lake.”
If the state chooses to pursue the project, we will be at the forefront of public opposition
If SePro, via DEQ, still chooses to pursue the pilot project, it would have to prepare an Environmental Assessment or even a more involved Environmental Impact Statement. Both those processes, required by federal law, entail public notice and comment.
‘If the state chooses to pursue the project by submitting a full Environmental Impact Statement to the Corps,” Chiosso said, “we will be at the forefront of public opposition.”