Wilmington, NC – Thick black mud squelches away from the treads of the city's recently-acquired swamp buggy as it jolts along the watery track use to keep an eye on several thousand feet of troubled sewer line near Hewlett's Creek.
In their now-daily patrols of the line, utilities workers have spotted woodpeckers, hawks, and myriad animal tracks back among the trees.
But swaying along in the vehicle this morning, city spokesperson Malissa Talbert is looking for different marks: evidence of the massive spill Thanksgiving week. It's hard to miss; downed trees and churned mud point the way.
The 655,000 gallons of wastewater that bubbled out of the pipe during that spill brought Wilmington's long sewer woes to a new head. The state Division of Water Quality has extended a moratorium on new hookups. And the Environmental Protection Agency is requesting information.
The city's main priority at right now is to move this section of the line someplace higher, or at least drier - shifting it out of corrosive soils and into a more easily reached area. Wastewater Collections System Manager Charles Adams says that before they got the buggy, just monitoring this area took hours on foot.
"Technically, to do anything back there we have to have a permit from the Corps of Engineers, because it is so wet. Because we're trying to protect the wetlands. It is a swamp, what used to be called a swamp. Now it's termed a wetlands."
Swamp or wetlands, Cape Fear Coastkeeper Mike Giles has his eye on Hewlett's Creek, and he's concerned about what all the spills are doing to it's fragile environment.
"That's an important watershed. Both the Coastal Federation and the state have projects in that watershed to try and clean up the watershed with the oyster reef restoration and living shorelines. And we're battling the city sewer system, which we shouldn't have to be doing."
The city wants to have a complete replacement for all nine miles of the NEI in place by 2010.
But the timeline for these 7,000 feet seems to run in fast forward: a complete survey and design for a new route by early next year, construction underway by late summer, and finally, the pipe in operation by march of 2008. All of this, according to Talbert, on one of the most difficult portions of the line.
Talbert says the city is ready to use all available tools, including condemnation, to speed things up.
If the city does have to seek easements for the replacement line, they may well come knocking on Mary Wofford's door.
Wofford's house in the quiet neighborhood of Hewlitt's Run backs onto the sewer line, something she didn't know when she bought it. Now she says the bad smell from the damp ground is ever-present, and she's still waiting for answers.
"I'm sad, frustrated, and angry that no one is contacting us, no one is sending us letters informing us what procedure is taking place."
Wofford says, if the engineers do decide to move the pipe in her direction, she'd worry about what it would mean for her property value. But she's willing to sacrifice.
"I mean, if that is the best solution, I will live with that. But again, something needs to be done now."
The next steps toward that something will be taken by surveyors' telescopes and compasses, and the squelching treads of the swamp buggy.
-Megan V. Williams