Temperatures were boiling as several hundred people crowded into Mars Hill College's unair-conditioned Moore Auditorium for an Aug. 3 public hearing on a pair of sewage-treatment plants proposed for Madison County. The Scenic Wolf Mountain Wastewater Treatment Plant, as it's called, would discharge 300,000 gallons of treated effluent daily into Puncheon Fork Creek, a tributary of Big Laurel Creek, which eventually flows into the Laurel River -- commonly used by Madison County residents for swimming, paddling and even baptisms. The much smaller Wolf Laurel Commercial Park plant would discharge 30,000 gallons per day.
The bulk of the wastewater would issue from a 900-unit complex of luxury homes and businesses planned by developers Rick Bussey and Orville English, who represent a laundry list of LLCs involved in development on Wolf Ridge, near the Wolf Laurel ski resort. During the driest, low-flow summer conditions, the discharge from the plant would constitute an estimated 27 percent of the stream flow, according to Toya Fields, an environmental engineer at the state Division of Water Quality.
The developers' design engineer James Jones presented an overview of the project, assuring the crowd that the water would be safe from bacterial contamination thanks to features like UV disinfection. "I would rather have this going into the streams than some of the straight pipes or failed systems we've seen in the past," Jones commented, referencing Madison County's history of illegal "straight-piping" systems, which pump sewage directly into waterways.
Once the hearing officer has made a recommendation, the director of the Division of Water Quality will have 90 days to decide whether to issue, modify or deny the permits, according to materials distributed at the hearing. Thursday, Aug. 17, is the final day for members of the public to submit written comments.
Numerous members of Laurel Valley Watch, a local nonprofit citizens' group, turned out in opposition to the plant. "I was baptized in the creeks," said Nina Fox-Holladay. "Now I am lucky enough to have three granddaughters who love to play in the creek. There are kids playing there every day."
Many people said they didn't believe it would be feasible for the tiny creek to support so much discharge. Bruce McTaggart, who said his background is in civil engineering and mathematics, appeared with a 13-foot measuring stick to demonstrate the creek's width at the widest section he could find, and a Hula-Hoop to indicate how much water typically flows through it. "Can it stand the 300,000 gallons a day that they're proposing?" he asked. "Personally, I don't think so."
Also represented at the hearing were two local nonprofits, the WNC Alliance and Clean Water for North Carolina. "The applicants for both of these permits have a bad track record of violations with the Division of Land Quality, Division of Water Quality, and the Madison County Health Department," said Gracia O'Neill, outreach coordinator of Clean Water for North Carolina, at a press conference before the hearing.
According to documents from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, environmental nonprofits aren't the only ones taking notice of the developers' string of past violations. An April 7 DENR staff report states: "The existing restaurant/lodge is in violation of existing permits for multiple infractions as per Madison County Health Department and State Attorney Mable Bullock. The Breakaway Village, which proposes 340 units and expects to take half the flow capacity of the plant, is in violation of both NCDENR Land Quality and Division of Water Quality regulations."
In a June 13 e-mail that hearing officer Steve Tedder sent to Roger Edwards in the Division of Water Quality's Swannanoa office, Tedder said that he was aware of the developer's unresolved health-code violations. "Why would I not infer that similar actions would occur regarding DWQ oversight?" the e-mail reads.
Steve Sloan, who serves on the Buncombe County Environmental Advisory Board, said during the hearing that he believes granting a permit for the Puncheon Fork plant would amount to delivering a "stinging salt to the wound" for Madison County. "As long as our mountain resources are viewed as a commodity, and as long as short-term economic gains trump long-term sustainability, my heart goes out to the citizens of this community," said Sloan. "Personally, I'm astonished ... that this permit is even being considered."