Year-in-Review: Wilmington's Sewers

Wilmington, NC – Wilmington ran a race against time with its sewer system this year.

A 60,000 gallon spill off Warlick Drive in February caused the State Division of Water Quality to place a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups to the Northeast Interceptor line, although many developers rushed to submit their applications before the ban took effect.

The year's largest spill wasn't due to the system's deteriorating conditions, but a contractor's wayward drill, which punctured a force main just outside the entrance to the Port of Wilmington on July 3rd. Five million gallons spilled, half of it into the Cape Fear River. After a dispute about whether or not the line was properly marked, the city eventually sent the contractor a bill for $196,605.

Assessments of the entire system and particularly the NEI identified needed repairs downtown and proposed building a parallel line to the Interceptor. Downtown repairs next year are expected to block some streets, although the city is working to minimize disruption, using subterranian techniques to replace brittle terra cotta pipes.

In the fall, crews replaced nearly a half-mile of corroded pipe along Shipyard Boulevard, and appealed to the DWQ to lift its moratorium. But instead, a major spill in late November extended the ban, focusing attention on a section of pipe near Hewlett's Creek.

Wilmington's sewer system also began to recieve national attention, with the Environmental Protection Agency requesting documents from the city.

In total, nearly 800,000 gallons of wastewater spilled out of the system in 2006.

Director of Public Utilities Hugh Caldwell, says it's been a challenging few years.

"Seem like just when we're kind of getting ahead of things, another unknown previous repair will give us a problem. We feel like we've got a really good game plan mapped out, feel like we have the proper expertise on board to deal with it."

Caldwell says that the research and funding are now in place to move forward with major upgrades in the coming years.

Improvements to the Northeast Interceptor alone are expected to cost $30 to 40 million. The City Council approved the first chunk of that spending -- $2.689 million mostly for surveying and design work -- in mid-December.