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Illegal Dumping; The Latest On The Criminal Investigation And Cleanup

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities

It’s been nearly a week since someone illegally pumped more than a thousand gallons of PCB’s, a toxic chemical,  into the Charlotte sewer system.  WFAE’s Tom Bullock reports on where the criminal investigation stands and the cleanup the city is facing.

Despite calls to tip lines and days of investigation Major Johnny Jennings says the police still don’t have a suspect.  But the police have been conducting interviews as they continue to either eliminate potential suspects or identify people or companies that may have been involved in the crime.

There was, of course, a second report of illegal dumping this weekend.  Police now say these two incidents don’t appear to be linked.

Major Jennings is the commander of the task force investigating the illegal dumping.  He says their next step is combing through hours of surveillance video from cameras in the area where the first incident took place.  This includes footage from traffic cameras, ATM's and businesses near that site.  But since officials aren't sure of just when the illegal dumping took place, they have to comb through hours of video from each of these cameras in real time.

But authorities still have only a rough guess of when the crime took place.  That means watching potentially hours of footage from each of the cameras in the area all in hopes of catching a glimpse of the people or vehicle involved.

As for the clean-up - Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department is leading that effort…as well as looking for other instances of illegal dumping.

Its not an easy thing to track.  In fact no one knows just how many small spills enter the system each year.  "Chemicals come into the plant from a lot of sources.  They’re not all spills.  And its really hard to know which are spills and which are not."  say Barry Gullet the director of CMUD  This is because a lot of chemicals legally enter the sewer system in the form of industrial runoff.     

C.M.U.D. regularly tests water coming into and out of their plants.  But these tests can take time.  In fact both of the chemical dumps were detected not by sensors but by workers with a keen sense of sight, and yes, smell.

The most environmentally damaging of the two spills was the first.  It contained PCB’s which have been banned in the US for decades.  And Barry Gullet says it’s not something CMUD has had to deal with before.   And it creates a number of problems for the utility to deal with. 

The first is what to do with the PCB’s.  Gullet points out that wastewater treatment plants aren’t magic.  What goes in has to come out in some form.  And that includes illegal chemicals.

PCB’s cant be treated by the plant.  And they cant be released into the water supply without contaminating what lies downstream.  So CMUD has moved the contaminated water to a storage facility at the Mallard Creek Plant.  And they’re working on separating out the PCB’s so they can be disposed of properly.  This is usually done by  incineration or by packing  the contaminated liquid into special containers then stored at an approved landfill.

Which leads us to the second problem – Cost.  Police believe the perpetrator may have dumped the PCB’s in order to avoid paying for LEGAL disposal. 

Steve Hammilton is president of Spectrum Environmental in Charlotte – a company that cleans up toxic contaminants.  He says the cost for disposing of just one 55 gallon drum of PCB's can cost between $200 and $300. 

CMUD reports a little more than 1,600 gallons of contaminated liquids were pumped into Mallard Creek last week.  That means the city is potentially looking at a disposal bill of at least $5,800.  Plus any damage the chemicals caused to the plant.  The city wont know the final cost until later this week.