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State fines trailer park $65,000 for sewage spills

After two years of trying, Bill Walker has helped bring about state action against Halfway Tree trailer park, which is upstream from his home on Rutledge Road. After two years of trying, Bill Walker has helped bring about state action against Halfway Tree trailer park, which is upstream from his home on Rutledge Road.

FLAT ROCK — When David Dethero and Bill Walker stroll in their park-like yards, they tend to talk about things like rare wild azaleas, the chestnut paneling in a cabin on Walker’s property and the constant war on vines and other invasive plants that advance into their yards.

 

But one day this week, they talked mostly about pollution they say is coming from a neighboring trailer park upstream. The park, called Halfway Tree, is home to around 114 mobile homes that are served by eight different septic systems spread throughout 18 acres.
Even though he had recently cleaned the ponds in his yard, Walker pointed to their filmy surface.
“You can see a little milky haze,” he said. “Must’ve been doing some laundry.”
“They’re not supposed to have washer-dryers in the units,” Dethero added. “But they do and they don’t police it.”
Walker, who is 80, and Dethero, 78, are next door neighbors and the two homeowners closest to downstream end of the trailer park, which is off Rutledge Drive south of Erkwood. They’ve been appealing for help from state and county regulators for more than two years and until recently were frustrated by bureaucratic inertia and cross-agency buck-passing.
That may be changing, thanks to Walker’s persistence before the Flat Rock Village Council and the Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action, which is made up of representatives from the city and county. During a meeting of the LGCCA two weeks ago, two county commissioners, after hearing Walker’s detailed account of the problem, vowed to take action.
DaveDetheroDave Dethero“We have three ponds on our property,” fed by “a continuous flowing stream of nice clear water, on a day when they’re not discharging,” Walker told the committee. “But on a day when they are discharging we have raw sewage floating down on our pond. On a Saturday, which is their primary laundry day, we will have suds and soap on our pond and our pond will be milky looking from all the washing that’s going on over there.”
A couple of years ago, Walker found the property owners sympathetic to his concerns. They even wrote him a check for $600 to cover a repair he had made. Then the owners got a cost estimate for tying onto Hendersonville city sewer system. It was $800,000. The park owners lawyered up.
“As soon as they determined how much it would cost, they would no longer talk to us,” he said. Since then, the neighbors have turned to the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Henderson County Health Department. Walker met on July 15 with DEQ administrator Lannie Davidson in Asheville, who Walker said blamed the county Health Department.
According to Walker, Davidson said he “couldn’t do anything because (the county) continues to issue permits to fix those septic systems.”
“Two years ago, in a meeting with all the people involved, it was pointed out that the small amount of acres that they have there at Halfway Tree is not capable of absorbing all the sewage no matter what kind of septic field you put in,” Walker said. “The only resolve is to go on city sewer or to reduce the population.”


A summer retreat

The Halfway Tree has been at the edge of Flat Rock since in the mid-1960s. It’s been owned since 2002 by Roger Upchurch, who also owns Upchurch Marinas Inc., operating coastal resorts in Pompano Beach and Marathon, Florida. Tax records show that the 18-acre park is valued at $1.8 million. Built in 1964, the 6,900-square-foot clubhouse and office is valued at $313,000.
“It’s a good trailer park as trailer parks go,” Dethero said. “It’s just getting old.”
HalfwayTreeDeveloped in the mid 1960s, Halfway Tree Mobile Home Park is home to year-round and summer residents.The streets are quiet, named after the trees that shade the homes — Ironwood, Silver Birch, Blue Spruce. The homeowners are mostly retired, many of them summer residents who head to Florida in the winter. Residents a Lightning reporter greeted on Monday evening politely said they knew nothing about a dispute over sewage.
“If it’s a rumor I don’t pay attention to it,” one woman said from her perch in the driver’s seat of a golf cart. “Rumors spread like wildfire around here.”
Donnie, the trailer park manager, who walked away when asked his last name, said he was aware of the dispute but that tests have been inconclusive.
“We’ve got no problems. We’re good,” he said. “We’ve done a million tests (on the water). No one can tell where it comes from.”
Efforts to reach Upchurch and his Asheville-based attorney were unsuccessful.
Walker doesn’t blame the park residents.
“The homes in the Halfway Tree Park are very nice places. They keep the park up beautifully. I have no complaint against the homeowners,” he said. “They pay their rent to the South Florida owners who are unwilling to step up. … Here’s what I hope. I hope they go ahead and pursue city sewer and if they pursue city sewer I hope they will not fine them.”

 

Septic tanks grandfathered in

The park owner can’t start over with a new onsite sewer system because “the whole area is grandfathered in and would no longer meet the requirements,” Walker told the LGCCA.
Walker and Dethero, who is running for a seat on the Flat Rock Village Council, point to the potential for pollutants downstream. The tributaries that run through their yards feed Memminger Creek, which flows into King Creek at the Park at Flat Rock. The village has built a beautiful park with trails, a stream and a lake. “But if you come don’t bring your grandchildren because if they get in that pond they’re likely to be exposed to a health hazard,” Walker said.
The situation had gotten the county’s attention. The morning of the LGCCA meeting county officials contacted Drew Christy, director of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Western North Carolina office.
“This is something that’s a very serious matter,” County Manager Steve Wyatt told the mayors and commissioners gathered in the Historic Courthouse. The county is also looking into a community development block grant to finance hookup to the city sewer system, enlisting help from legislators and contacting state and local regulators.
“We have folks in the General Assembly who I believe would find this situation to be of interest, especially since DEQ gets its funding from the Legislature,” Wyatt said. “So what we’re doing is working through Drew Christy in his office, which reports directly to the governor. … And otherwise I will again reach out to my liaison in the Health Department make sure that every authority and power they have in this matter has been exercised.”


State fines owner $65,000

The week after Walker appeared at the LGCCA, the state suddenly took action. The Department of Environmental Quality issued a notice of violations against Upchurch Marinas, the park owner, and fined the company $65,368. In its findings, the DEQ said that the park is “illegally discharging” wastewater into a stream that feeds Meminger Creek. It cited specific violations in June 2017 of “cloudy, odorous and foamy water” flowing from a stormwater outfall near the southeastern boundary of the property. The DEQ’s Division of Water Resources workers cited the owner for discharges that exceeded fecal coliform levels. The investigators visited the park again last November and December and, after finding violations, cited the mobile home park owner a second time.
In a response last February, the owner said Upchurch Marinas had spent $250,000 maintaining, replacing and repairing septic systems and drainfields and had cooperated with state water resources staff and the Henderson County Health Department. The company argued that assessment of a civil penalty “will simply take away funds for septic maintenance, repair and replacement.” Upchurch said it “continues to explore” options for city sewer.
The notice of violation says the company can pay the fine, ask to have the fine reduced or seek an administrative hearing.

 


‘No. 1 on my list’ to resolve, commissioner says

 

Mayor Bob Staton said at the LGCCA meeting he had written to DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, copied Edwards and McGrady and included notices of violation and a resolution the Flat Rock Village Council adopted demanding that the state fix the problem. Recounting the Division of Water Resources record, the council’s resolution says that investigators in June 2017 had “confirmed the neighbors’ complaints of visual and olfactory evidence of untreated sewage, laundry facility drainage and other contaminants from Halfway Tree on their properties.”
Commissioner Bill Lapsley pointed out that the problem crosses two jurisdictions. While DEQ regulates water pollution, the state Department of Health and Human Services oversees septic tank regulations. Lapsley urged Mayor Staton to write, too, to HHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. Lapsley, the county commission’s representative on the Board of Health, said the county may have authority under state law to intervene.
“I believe there’s a provision in those regulations that says if there is a public health hazard, the county health department has the authority to direct the property owner … to stop his use of the system,” he said. “Now you can imagine the political ramifications of someone from the county health department going up to Mr. and Mrs. Jones who live in the house whose septic system has failed and saying, ‘Guess what, you gotta move out and close your doors because your system has failed and created a public health hazard for people downstream.’”
“And then multiply that by a hundred times,” added County Commission Chairman Grady Hawkins.
Even so, Lapsley responded, if the health department has evidence of pollution, it ought to act.
“We don’t need to be in a situation where the county could be accused of being negligent in enforcing the regulation,” he said. “So I can assure this will be No. 1 on my list and we’ll see if we can get this situation corrected.”
Walker volunteered that the county Health Department had conducted tests repeatedly downstream of Halfway Tree, using dye to try to trace pollutants to the source. “They’ve been reluctant to put it on any one septic system,” he said. “But in every case the E-coli and fecal count and all of those pollutants flooded in from Halfway Tree Park.”
Hawkins brought the discussion to a close by cutting to the bottom line.
“Whatever agency or municipality in the county is involved, untreated waste in the county is unacceptable,” he said. “We just can’t have that. You can’t jeopardize the health and welfare of everybody in the county. It just needs to be corrected.”