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Investigative Report: Straight Piping Concerns

Updated: Thursday, February 27 2014, 10:22 PM EST
Some mountain residents are hiding a dirty secret in their backyards that may be getting other people sick. Tonight, a News 13 investigation exposes a problem known as "straight-piping", dumping raw sewage directly into rivers and creeks. Environmentalists say Madison County has been "infamous" for having problems with straight-piping in the past. But this is a widespread issue and we wanted to see for ourselves who's doing it and how county officials are responding.

Madison County resident Arvol Coates says his neighbors have been straight-piping for years stating, “When they flush their commode or anything it goes out the drain pipe and goes directly to the creek." Pete Orthmann also lives in Madison and says, "I think it's nasty."

Hartwell Carson is the French Broad Riverkeeper and works with the environmental organization, Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA).  He says straight-piping is an inexpensive way to dispose of raw sewage, "You can just put in a pipe and dump it out to the river and, you know, it flows downstream and becomes somebody else's problem."

Carson investigates the harmful effects of straight-piping. When raw sewage is dumped into the area’s creeks and streams it eventually makes its way to the French Broad River. Carson explains, "If you have enough of those fecal coliforms or nutrients in the river it can cause fish kills, certainly make humans sick and definitely not what you want in your rivers."

Madison resident, Matthew Ponder, believes straight-piping killed hundreds of fish in his family's pond. Now, more than two years after he reported this issue to the Madison County Health Department, he says the problem still hasn’t been completely resolved, "It's still flowing on the ground and into the pond."

Carson says that’s simply, "Unacceptable”. He tells News 13, "I've always heard that Madison County had a lot of straight-piping." While County Manager Alan Lamberson says the Ponder case is complicated by the family's legal battle over property rights, some residents feel other home owners are also not being held accountable. Ponder claims, "It seems everybody, I think, in the community knows it." Coates also claims he notified the Health Department about, “Two or three different people that were straight-piping."

Orthmann keeps a close eye on county politics and says he's currently suing Madison County for denying him access to public records. He describes himself this way, "I'm probably the county muckraker." According to Orthmann, three years ago he notified the Madison Health Department's lead inspector, Jamie List, about several properties that were straight-piping in the small town of Marshall. He says he told List, "There's 2 trailers on East Fork and there's clearly a straight-pipe and she said she'd go and check it out."
Four other residents tell News 13 they’ve also reported these cases to inspectors at the Madison County Health Department within the past 3 years. Matthew Ponder even shot cell phone video of the two trailers on East Fork Road saying, "I waded down the center of the creek and shot video of the pipe running from underneath the trailer right in to the creek."

Ponder's video shows a white PVC pipe that's apparently connected to the bottom of the trailer and the pipe runs through shallow ground, emptying out into a small creek. Orthmann says, "You can see it from the road."

This past November, we checked it out for ourselves.  Moments after we arrived, so did the property owner, Hall Bruce.  News 13’s Investigative Reporter Mike Mason then asked Bruce, "Why are people telling me that you're straight-piping?"  Bruce replied, "I don't have no idea."

Bruce says he owns the land and one of the two trailers on it. He claims he installed two septic tanks twenty five years ago and updated them in the past three years. Mason then asked, "What about that white pipe, that big pipe out back of this trailer?"  Bruce contemplated the question saying, "A white pipe...."  He thought for a moment and then explained how he owns other trailers across the road, on top of a hill. He claims the PVC pipe funnels spring water between the two locations and has nothing to do with septic issues. Bruce elaborated saying, "Those two trailers up there was put in several years ago and most of them have septic tanks."

Last November, two weeks after we began asking questions, the Madison Health Department inspected Bruce's trailers and, as a result, issued two Notices of Violation (NOV). Department Director, Jan Shepard, says Bruce told her inspectors he has a septic tank for one trailer but Shepard says, "There's no proof of that”. The Health Department then ordered Bruce to have a septic system properly installed by January 22nd, 2014 but so far he hasn't complied. Bruce's other trailer was being rented at the time so officials ordered him to disconnect the power and have the tenants leave the property. The county says Bruce eventually complied earlier this month with regards to that property.

According to the Madison Health Department, the only prior complaint for Bruce’s property was filed in 2011. Inspectors noted one of Bruce's trailers had a "Failing septic system"...which was "Seeping through the yard. - and the kitchen sink runs through a pipe to the creek." The power was then shut off and the county considered this case resolved. But residents say some homeowners have been getting away with straight-piping for years. Coates says, "It ain't right, by no means."

Coates was forced to close his general store in Marshall in 2011 because, although he had a working septic system, it wasn't up to code. His store is adjacent to Bull Creek and a small trailer.  Several residents claim that trailer has been straight-piping for some time and they’ve reported it to the Health Department within the past few years. Coates says while his store was being shut down he questioned a county inspector about it asking, "Why can't you do something to make him come up to code? He just shook his head, wouldn't even talk to me."

After we questioned the county about this trailer, an inspector visited the property and found it was indeed straight-piping into the creek. Over the past few months the county has issued the owner two Notices of Violation with no results. Last week, the owner sent the tenants an eviction notice so he could comply with the county’s order.

In 2013 Madison County issued more septic violations than surrounding counties such as Polk, McDowell and Rutherford . Twenty five complaints were filed last year. Twelve of those cases had confirmed violations requiring enforcement and thirteen others were 'unfounded' or have since been 'resolved'.  This doesn’t surprise Carson who says Madison has, "Always had the reputation of having those problems and I don't necessarily know enough about how it's regulated there to sort of have an opinion about why." Madison County officials say these types of investigations take time. Meanwhile, residents such as Matthew Ponder say time is money and the community depends upon tourism dollars to stay afloat, "People fish in the streams and tube and raft, I mean the county has built a good industry on rafting."  Carson agrees saying, "It's certainly not how we want to treat our rivers, as a dumping ground, as a place to get rid of our sewage."

In the late '90's the state formed a program to help counties investigate straight-piping violations, investigators essentially went door-to-door to find out if homeowners were having any septic issues. We're told about 20 % of homes were found to have septic problems but that program was later cancelled due to lack of funding.  If you know of a septic violation you can contact your local Health Department. If it’s still not getting resolved you can always email our investigative team by clicking this link: mike mason - investigative reporter or you can report the violation directly to the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA) at 828-258-8737.Investigative Report: Straight Piping Concerns

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