BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Based on the number of headlines it’s made of late, you might think H2Go has long been a big newsmaker in our area. It hasn’t. So how did we get here?
Just a few years ago, H2Go was like most public utilities: Taken for granted by customers who just wanted water to flow from their faucets and toilets to flush without issue and not to have to pay too much for the service. But things started to get interesting in 2014, as tensions started to rise over H2Go’s plan to build a reverse osmosis (RO) water treatment plant.
Buyer or provider
H2Go began exploring the idea of a RO plant in 2011 for a couple of reasons. One was water quality. The other was economic.
For years H2Go has spent about $1.5 million a year buying bulk water from Brunswick County Public Utilities. That water comes from the Cape Fear River, which has long had to deal with various pollution issues. Instead, the elected H2Go commissioners argued, a RO plant would pull and treat cleaner ground water from an aquifer.
Critics have argued H2Go does not need to get into the water treatment business, and that building a $30 million RO plant would inevitably lead to rate hikes for the utility’s 10,000 customers, which equates to about 25,000 people, the utility says. Supporters countered that construction and operations costs would be offset largely by no longer needing to buy water and even the possibility to become a seller of bulk water to other utilities.
To zone or not to zone
H2Go bought land on Chappell Loop Road in Leland to build an RO plant in 2013. Months later, while approving zoning for water treatment plants in certain areas, the Town of Leland voted against rezoning the land the utility purchased, which is neighbored by other industrial facilities, to allow the plant’s construction.
Leland leaders said they opposed the plan because of concerns from residents of Leland and Belville. But while Leland questioned the need for the plant, Belville remained supportive.
A new home nearby
In 2014 H2Go found a new home for the plant, when it bought land in the Belville Industrial Park off US 17. While the land is in Belville, it is just yards away from the entrance to Magnolia Greens, which is in Leland. By early 2015, that had many residents of the neighborhood concerned about impacts to the environment, quality of life and property values.
Still, the project moved forward through the regulatory approval process and bidding for construction.
That’s when voters took the battle to the ballot box.
Changing of the guard, Part 1
Elections for the H2Go board typically garner little attention even from customers who vote for the commissioners. But in 2015, things changed. Jeff Gerken and Trudy Trombley ran for two seats on the board with a platform of opposing the RO plant plan. Electioneering from both sides was aggressive outside polling places on Election Day.
The anti-RO candidates won easily. Gerken and Trombley each got nearly three times the votes of incumbents John Crowder and Poe Butler.
The challengers’ victory cut the pro-RO majority on the board down to 3-2. It was not enough yet to stop the project, but it was enough to create speed bumps and other obstacles in the process.
On June 5 of this year, the Brunswick County Commission, after receiving a petition with hundreds of signatures of residents against the RO plant, unanimously approved a resolution asking the H2Go board to delay the project until after the November election. County commissioners, who stood to lose the biggest customer from Brunswick County Public Utilities, argued it would give the voters the final say on whether to proceed.
By all accounts, the future of the RO plant looked bleak.
Then everything changed one day later.
GenX fears change perspectives
On June 7 at 10:31 a.m. the StarNews posted on its website a story that would dominate local media for the rest of the year, and perhaps for years to come.
“Toxin taints CFPUA drinking water,” the headline read. By the time the newspaper hit news stands and driveways the next morning, the region was in a furor over a chemical compound called GenX made at the Chemours chemical plant near Fayetteville and discharged into the Cape Fear River, which provides the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in the region, including customers of H2Go.
Little was initially known about GenX and how to get rid of it, but experts soon said reverse osmosis might help. That led many people around the area to look at in-home RO systems. And in northern Brunswick County, H2Go customers, many of whom had voted against pro-RO incumbents in 2015 to help stop what they thought might be a multi-million-dollar boondoggle, now looked at the controversial plant that seemed destined for failure, in a much different light.
Suddenly many customers argued the plant must be built for the health and safety of the community. But would that argument be enough to stop the momentum of the previous couple of years?
By the time candidates filed for the fall H2Go election sides had been drawn again. Pro-RO incumbents Ron Jenkins and Carl Antos would run again along with fellow RO supporter Rodney McCoy, who would try to fill the seat of incumbent Bill Browning, who decided not to run again. They faced strong opposition from anti-RO candidates Brayton Willis, Bill Beer and former Brunswick County Health Director Don Yousey. The threesome against the plant said they did not dispute the health ramifications of the plant, but again focused on economics. Some opponents even argued if anyone should build such a plant, it should be the county.
Changing of the guard, Part 2
The fall campaign for the once unnoticed H2Go Commission was as big and as ugly as any in the region. Jenkins won back his seat, and McCoy won election as well. But Beer finished the night in the third and final spot fewer than two dozen votes ahead of Antos. A recount confirmed the results. The anti-RO movement finally had the majority it needed to put a stop to the plant. At least we thought that’s what happened.
Surprises of all kinds
By law elected officials do not take office until at least early December. So when the H2Go board met for its first regular meeting after the election on Nov. 28, it was still with a 3-2 majority supportive of the RO plant.
Emotions were high as the meeting began, as customers on both sides of the debate spoke out. When the agenda reached “New Business,” Antos, in his last meeting on the board, shocked pretty much everyone by introducing a resolution to give everything H2Go has to the Town of Beville. Jenkins and Browning voted with him, while Gerken and Trombley voted no.
What has followed has been a series of legal maneuvers by stakeholders and extra meetings attended only by Gerken, Trombley and Beer after a midnight swearing in of the newest member.
Now, it’s in the hands of the courts. What happens next is anyone’s guess.