CoastLine Candidate Interviews: Wrightsville Beach / H2GO

Sep 8, 2017

On this edition of the CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we spend the first segment with one candidate for the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen.  The remaining two segments feature candidates running for Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO, popularly known as H2GO – who have opposing views on whether to build a reverse osmosis plant. 

Segment 1:  Pat Prince for Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen

This is a race that has five candidates vying for two open seats.  Only one of the incumbents with an expiring term is running for re-election.  We will hear from the other candidates for the Board in Wrightsville Beach later this election season. 

Wrightsville Beach is a town in New Hanover County with a population of slightly more than 2500.  About 98% of the population is white with a median household income, according to the 2010 census, of slightly more than $64,000. 

Pat Prince has a degree in recreation administration from the University of North Carolina.  She has also served as clerk for Jane Mosley in the North Carolina House of Representatives.  And she’s served on the UNCW Board of Visitors, its Executive Board of Visitors, and the Flotilla Committee.  She is currently Vice President of The Wrightsville Beach Foundation.  

Segment 2:  Brayton Willis - H2GO Board of Commissioners

H2GO is a water and sewer utility in Brunswick County that serves the northeast portion of the County including Leland, Belville, parts of Navassa, and some customers located outside of these municipal boundaries.

The utility serves about 10,000 water customers, 6,000 sewer customers, and expects the customer base to double within the next 25 years.

H2GO currently buys finished water from Brunswick County Public Utilities.   But since 2011, H2GO has worked towards building its own Reverse Osmosis plant.  Constructing a plant with a price tag of more than $30 million is controversial – with opponents concerned the project is not necessary and would saddle consumers with higher utility rates.

Brayton Willis is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and currently lives in Leland with his wife.  He has worked as a wastewater design/construction engineer for private engineering firms.  As a public health engineer, he oversaw the Water and Wastewater program in Maricopa County, Arizona.   He has also worked as a Senior Project Manager and Strategic Planner for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and he’s served on the Planning and Zoning Board in Holden Beach, NC.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Brayton Willis, welcome to CoastLine.

Brayton Willis: Thank you very much for inviting me.

RLH: And Mr. Willis, I want to get to a listener question first from Jane Doe. She says you have frequently stated that regionalism is the answer to water treatment for the current water crisis, but what will be the cost, and how long will it take for Brunswick County to implement the treatment improvements to remove GenX and other fluorinated contaminants?

BW: Oh, that's a great question. I am an advocate of regionalism. I am an advocate of community partnerships. I've got 40 years of working with communities all across the United States, utilities who have often tried to find the most affordable ways, cost effective ways to service their customers' needs for water and sewer. Here in Brunswick County, I am eagerly looking forward to their efforts to look at a wide variety of opportunities to treat our water. And I think it would follow right behind Cape Fear Public Utilities' efforts to look at granulated activated carbon and the other treatment technologies that they're looking at now.

So I'm thinking that it's going to be far more affordable to spread the cost of whatever treatment, regardless if it’s RO or if it's granulated activated carbon or polymer based treatment. It will be far, far less expensive to our customers to do that on a regional basis, because you get more people you can spread the cost around.

RLH: So what you're saying is, you're not necessarily opposed to the idea of using reverse osmosis for treatment, you're opposed to H2GO building this plant.

BW: Exactly. The technology is a proven technology, and if it's required here, and Brunswick County decides that it has to be implemented, then we support that. But we do not support it for such a small utility as H2GO.

RLH: And you've said that Chemours, which is the company responsible for discharging GenX -- this unregulated, potentially dangerous compound into the Cape Fear River, which of course supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in southeastern North Carolina. You said they should be held accountable for their discharge of contaminants into the water supply, but some, and certainly regulators and government officials now are working to hold them accountable. But that's after the fact. What do you say to people who don't want their drinking water supply in the hands of industry?

BW: Oh, I totally agree. I think Chemours should be held accountable. To me, it is just an absolute injustice when you think about it, they draw their water out of the Cape Fear River, use it for their economic benefit and then return it polluted. That to me, is an insult to all of us that live down here, down river and to take this one step further -- Brunswick County yesterday has hired, they announced that they're hiring a national law firm, and they're going to start chasing these people back up into the holes that they crawled out of.

RLH: That's right. But that's after the fact. And so when we're talking about the control over the water supply, I mean one of the things that proponents of this plan argue is, if we have our own plant we have control over our own drinking water, no matter what other company companies like Chemours will do, and they will continue. I'm not speaking about Chemours, but industry continuously violates, that's what happens.

BW: Right now, Cape Fear Public Utilities is testing granulated activated carbon, and I would be surprised if that didn't work out as a potential solution. Granulated activated carbon is an order of magnitude less expensive, and it can be deployed in a matter of months versus waiting till 2019 for a reverse osmosis plant. That really is an unaffordable investment, waiting for that to come online.

RLH: We've heard from some of the researchers from NC State who have studied the presence of GenX and the best system to remove Gen X from the water supply, and what we've heard is, reverse osmosis is really the only effective treatment for that.

BW: I will say this again, it is being tested as we speak, and if reverse osmosis is the only answer, you would want to have a large customer base to spread that cost and benefit. I mean, I will say this, as I said earlier, I have worked with utilities all across this country, and this is the first time that I've ever seen a utility go in the opposite direction or partnerships in collaboration.

RLH: We had a call; Jane from Leland called. She asks if Brayton Willis is elected, will he work to dissolve H2GO? And if so, what will happen to the sanitary district assets and debt?

BW: Good question, that's not on our agenda. Our platform is, number one, to reverse all of the actions and activities related to the reverse osmosis plant. The second thing is to go back to Brunswick County, re-establish a strong partnership with them and negotiate a future water wholesale water agreement with them. The third thing is to make sure that our employees, the H2GO employees are getting whatever they need to do the hard job they do every day. So that question is not on our platform.

RLH: Have you detected a shift in public opinion? This has been a controversial project, this reverse osmosis plant for several years now, and there was a great deal of opposition. Do you think there's been a little bit of a shift since the news of GenX and other contaminants in the river broke?

BW: To all the people that I've talked to, and you know you don't want to throw out statistics, but for about every 40 people that I've talked to about H2GO services, one of 40 is concerned. When we went out and talked to the community, when we had done this from one end to the other, it is about 40 to 1 in favor of regionalize approach. Keeping Brunswick County in the mix, Brunswick County is a multi-award winning water and wastewater utility. They want to continue that service.

RLH: We had an email from Kirby who wrote: You say the RO plant will challenge the less fortunate. What do you say to the less fortunate who are being subjected to contaminated water, and who will have no immediate solutions provided by Brunswick County?

BW: Well, I'm going to say this, RO water is the most expensive water that a municipality could consider, if we're going to talk about the less fortunate in our community. H2GO, three members on that board have not even explored what the impacts of that expensive investment would be on that community. It's just not there. They didn't do it. So what do I say to the people that can afford the water: We're going to do everything that we can to collaborate with Brunswick County, to keep the cost at a reasonable level for all of the customers, including those that may be on the other end of the income scale.

RLH: If you look at this from a regional perspective, collaborating with Brunswick County, potentially CFPUA or maybe other entities, what would the timeline be on that? At what point would you be able to say to people we found the solution, we can certify it's a safe drinking water supply, and it's being implemented?

BW: Let me say this, Bill Beer, Don Yousey, and myself, working together as a slate for these three seats have already begun the process of those discussions, looking at opportunities, looking for those sweet spots where we can partner with, not only Brunswick County. We've got Leland; we've got Navassa; we've got Belville. There are opportunities where collaboration can produce great results, and great cost benefits to all of the people in that area, and maybe even beyond, maybe we can look at collaborating with the other wholesale customers within Brunswick County.

RLH: So what's the timeline on that?

BW: Immediately.

RLH: And how long do you think it would take, if you and the opponents of this RO plant built by H2GO are elected in November, from that point on, how long do you think it would take to have a solution in place? Not just negotiated, but built in place and working?

BW: A solution for what?

RLH: For the potentially contaminated water supply.

BW: Again, Cape Fear Public Utilities is testing alternatives.

RLH: Right.

BW: When those tests come back, then we'll get a really good idea of what we can do in the timeframe. I can tell you that from the research that I've done on granulated activated carbon, it can be deployed far quicker and far less expensive than reverse osmosis. We could probably even beat the timeline that they have for the reverse osmosis start-up.

RLH: Sarah from Leland called in and she asks: Does he think that only one out of 40 people are actually concerned about the contamination in the water? She wants clarification.

BW: Yeah, that is the number that I was keeping when I was going through, there could be a difference in that, certainly, but those are the numbers, when I talk to the folks, those are the numbers that I was kind of keeping tabs on to see who is in favor and who is opposed.

RLH: Warren from Leland asks: Do you feel the current H2GO organizations should remain as an autonomous entity, or should it become part of a larger provider such as Brunswick County?

BW: You know, we haven't even addressed that. Like I said, in our in our platform right now, we've got three target opportunities that we're working on, and that is stopping the reverse osmosis plant activities, continue to purchase water from Brunswick County, and making sure that the employees are getting what they need to continue providing the excellent service that they provide.

RLH: Do you drink the water that's currently coming out of your tap at home in Brunswick County?

BW: Let me share with you something, as a Marine Corps veteran stationed at Camp Lejeune, I was personally impacted by the water issues there. I currently drink the water coming out of the tap, untreated. My wife does. My grandkids do. My children do. My dog does.

RLH: Tell us why you're not concerned about the safety of that water supply.

BW: 22 parts per trillion to me...

RLH: You're talking about GenX. There are lots of other chemical compounds that we were discovering in that water supply.

BW: Yeah, I think that Carl Antos has talked about 1,4 dioxane, that's non-detectable, coming out of the treatment plant. So to me, that's not an issue. These other strange compounds that keep on popping out of the woodwork, we'll address those one at a time, and we'll take a look at those. It could be that granulated activated carbon can eliminate that. And if it does, great--we got a bonus. We'll move on. But we'll take it one at a time. The surface water here is critical for 300,000 people and businesses, and we have to look at it from the regional approach. It's mandatory.

RLH: And that's our time, Brayton Willis. Thank you so much for joining us today.

BW: Thank you. I really appreciate the conversation. 

Segment 3: Rodney McCoy -- H2GO Board of Commissioners

H2GO is moving towards construction of a reverse osmosis plant so that it would have an independent water source and control of its water quality.  H2GO currently spends about $1.8 million per year on finished water from Brunswick County Public Utilities. 

The RO plant, however, is controversial.  Opponents organized a couple of years ago, and of the five current commissioners on H2GO’s Board, at least two of those members are opposed to construction of the plant. 

There are six candidates in total vying for three open seats.   On a previous show (September 6, 2017), we met three others seeking a seat on H2GO’s board. 

Rodney McCoy is a Leland resident, a business owner, and is running in support of the reverse osmosis plant.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Rodney McCoy, welcome to Coastline.

Rodney McCoy: Thank you so much for inviting me.

RLH: Rodney McCoy, one of the complaints that we've heard repeated about the pro RO folks is that they're not listening to the approximately 900 residents who have signed a petition saying hey please wait until after the election. This thing is moving too fast, and we're concerned about the potential cost.

RM: Actually it's been studied for at least six years, as far as the 950, you don't compare it to 10,000, there's 950 people compared to 25,000 residents.

RLH: So do those 900 people not matter?

RM: No, they all matter, but the signatures are primarily from a very small geographic area and are not widespread at all. I feel that there is widespread support for H2GO and clean, contaminant free water.

RLH: And why do you personally -- you're not an incumbent, you would be if you were elected to this board, this would be a new seat for you -- why do you support this plan? Why do you want to be on the board?

RM: I was asked to be on the board, and the more I studied it, I agreed with it. But my concern is clean water. You know all the stories about GenX and its related products. I've got family; I've got family friends, and I want safe water for them. I want safe water for everybody in the area. Yeah, Leland and H2GO is going to be a leader of actually solving our problems.

RLH: Why were you approached to run for this? What in your background would make you good for this board?

RM: My whole professional career has been related to water and wastewater. So I'm very familiar with how to treat it. I've been involved in the design, and providing equipment to RO systems in Mexico, University South Carolina, and numerous other places.

RLH: You've provided equipment to reverse osmosis plants.

RM: Absolutely. Yes ma'am.

RLH: You own your own business now, explain to those of us who are not experts in this in this area what exactly your business does. What do you do?

RM: My primary customers are industrial, and I use liquid handling, which is pumps filtration systems and repair and troubleshooting -- that sort of thing, primarily with an industrial base

RLH: And industrial -- what sorts of...

RM: Rendering chemicals, poultry, to name a few. 

RLH: We had a call from Janet from Ivanhoe. She's asking: Could the RO plant be a false sense of security? Can it really eliminate all the contamination?

RM: The source of water itself is contaminant free, so you aren't eliminating anything. The RO system is purely to remove some salt. So there's nothing to eliminate from the get go.

RLH: So you're talking about starting to draw water -- instead of getting it from Brunswick County Public Utilities --drawing it from an aquifer.

RM: Absolutely, which is a different source, that's not what H2GO is doing now.

RLH: Correct. They are buying the water right now. So if that's a pure water source right now, why do you have to build a 30 plus million dollar plant to purify it?

RM: The level of salt in the aquifer is roughly equal to the amount of salt in a can of chicken soup.

RLH: Low sodium or regular?

RM: I'm not sure. Per EPA regulations that salt level is too high, so the system is to remove the salt in order to make it meet EPA regulations.

RLH: So there's not a cheaper way to remove the salt?

RM: No, there's not.

RLH: That's reverse osmosis.

RM: The neat thing about it, when you remove it from brackish system, it is much, much less energy intensive than it is if you actually deal with seawater.

RLH: The biggest concern around the building of this plant for opponents is the cost. Opponents are concerned about saddling ten thousand people with a 30 million dollar plus project. What do you say to those folks who say you're going to make my rates increase, by who knows how much?

RM: I would say two things. They've had professional analysis, look at that, and there will be no rate increase. If you wanted to bring it to a personal level, do you want to buy your house, or do you want to continue to rent it? Another way, if you remove the numbers and change the zeros and erode the pay, thirty four hundred dollars in 20 years or somewhere between $3,600 and $6,000 in 20 years, if you continue to buy it.

RLH: One of the current commissioners, Jeff Gerken, who we know is an opponent of the RO plant.  The projections that were handed to commissioners at the last meeting by H2GO management show that in 2020, the first full year of RO plant operation, the debt service would be nearly 1.7 million dollars. And the operating costs would be just under a million. That's a total of almost 2.7 million. H2GO estimates the cost of continuing to buy their finished water from the county in that year would be only a little more than two million. So that sounds like a pretty big discrepancy for a customer base of 10,000.

RM: Well, I have to go back to the professional analysis, which said there will be no rate increase. And actually as part of my justification, how much is the life and health of a child worth? Personally, I think it's worth quite a bit. So if you have numbers like that, I'm still concerned about the health and safety of the children and the pregnant women and the pets in the area.

RLH: Jane writes: Opponents to H2GO's RO system state H2GO has never operated an RO water plant. How difficult is it to operate an RO water plant?

RM: Well, me and you could go and learn how to operate an RO plant in about 30 minutes.

RLH: Well, speak for yourself.

RM: It is fully automated, the RO systems and the buildings I've been into, there's actually nobody there, it is taking care of itself. It is fully automated. If it has a problem, it gives you a phone call to house even. There's 300 million people in the world using RO water, in 130 different countries. So it's not rocket science at all.

RLH: Collette asks: Can you explain a little about RO, and how it works?

RM: An RO system is just a mechanical components really, is crossflow filtration where you put pressure on it, and you push the clean water through, the bad guys stay on the opposite side, and they get flushed down the drain. It's really a pretty basic system, that everything is commercial components. It's not black box at all.

RLH: Some of the opposition coming from the Town of Leland about this plant says people haven't really explored less environmentally impactful options enough first. And if this plant was built it would be dumping gallons and gallons of briny wastewater into the Brunswick River, which is a fish nursery.

RM: It has been fully explored. As far as the effluence is concerned, the brine concentration would be roughly eight to 10,000 parts per million. Seawater is 35,000 parts per million. The U.S. Geological Survey at Eagle Island, the salinity at that point varies between 27,000 and 500 parts, depending on tides and water and rain. So you're dumping essentially exactly what is in the river already. Studies show that there's absolutely no impact at all.

RLH: If two of the people who are opponents of this plant are elected, then there would be a majority on the board of commissioners that oppose this plant. What would you do then?

RM: I'll probably cry. This so important for the health and safety of our residents to have contaminant free water. And this is the only practical solution that's currently in process anywhere in the area.

RLH: You know, we've heard from a couple of supporters of the RO plant that the analysis has been done, and there is no concern about supporting this plant financially. But we all know that analyses aren't perfect, and we also know that costs tend to increase. The cost of this plant has already increased from the time that it was first explored to now, and it's increased significantly. How can you just say to people, make blanket statements, your bills aren't going to go up. Don't worry about it.

RM: I have to rely on the professionals and that was their analysis.

RLH: We have actually have Sterling from Leland, welcome to CoastLine, you're on the air. What's your question?

Sterling: Thank you. Well, I think you answered it. I am for the RO plant, but I don't understand how our tax bills won't go up. I understand that the professionals say that, but how do you know?

RM: Well, I understand. I'm a newbie too, so I'm not privy to as many numbers, so I have to rely on the professionals. However, our payments for the debt service is going to be constant, if we continue to buy the water from the county. You goin' have routine increases, and that could depend fully on inflation what those increases could be.

Sterling: I think it's important to explain to the folks why our bills won't go up.

RM: Absolutely. But considering how much money you spend on bottled water, because you feel there's too much goup in the water then.

RLH: Sterling, are you buying bottled water? 

Sterling: I moved in here 12 years ago. I never like the water down here, over 30 cents per gallon of water, RO water.

RLH: All right, Sterling, thank  you so much for that call. There has been other opposition; I've alluded to the Town of Leland's opposition. Brunswick County Board of Commissioners has said slow down, and even at the state level, representatives Deb Butler and Frank Iler, this bipartisan team sponsored a bill that got stuck in committee, didn't go anywhere, but it would require an economic impact study of a different kind. I believe by the local government commission before such a plant could be built. What do you make of all these entities saying hey, slow down? This is a big investment for not a lot of users.

RM: The town of Belville gave a unanimous endorsement.

RLH: That's a tiny municipality, which is part of the customer base.

RM: Absolutely. But the Town of Leland, the county looks at H2GO as being a real valuable entity and also being a cash cow. They would like to have it under their wing as opposed to being independent. And this is a method they're using to try to do things like that, in my opinion.

RLH: And Jeff writes: H2GO increased their price twice in 2013 and 2014 to pay for this plant, and they've been charging their customers ever since.

RM: That's before my time, and I'd be better off not answering.

RLH: OK. Why does H2GO -- this comes from DW -- not want to work with Brunswick County and the rest of the region to ensure that everyone has affordable, clean water? In other words, why not do the regional approach? 

RM: H2GO would be glad to work with anybody, but we would be responsible for our 25,000 residents. That's who we have to address clean water for. If there's a way to partner with other people, it would be wonderful. However, the term regionalization also implies that the fix would be 5, 10, 20 years down the road, which is not acceptable for anybody with any common sense.

RLH: We had a question Bob from Wilmington asks: Are there any new plans from new people? I'm not sure what, does that mean anything to you right now?

RM: No, ma'am, it really doesn't.

RLH: There are other RO plants operating in the state of North Carolina. Are there lessons that we can learn from those plants and potentially financial mistakes that we can avoid?

RM: Well, every time you build something you learn. Like I said, there are 300 million people in the world using RO water. One example I would like to give is, Emerald Isle has an RO system. In the winter, RO system supplies all the water in the summer; it's blended. The start of every summer local residents start calling to complain, because they don't like the quality of water once they start blending it. Also, if you notice any website with any utility that has an RO system, is bragging about their RO and the quality of water that you receive from the RO.

RLH: So we had a question: What would you say to folks who are insistent upon using RO to solve this problem, as suggesting to them to put their own, I suppose in-house system instead of spreading that cost to the 10,000 people, many of whom say they might not...

RM: The in-house system is a stopgap; I would consider it out for myself also. But as you know we're looking at solving the region's problems, not an individual household.

RLH: And that's this edition of the CoastLine Candidate Interviews. Rodney McCoy, thanks so much for being with us today.

RM: Thank you so much.