Central Prison Leaking Fuel into Rocky Branch Creek

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On Sept. 5, the Central Prison sewer drain leaked fuel into Rocky Branch Creek for the third time this year, likely from a spill first discovered in 1999 and left in place.

While Kenneth Lassiter, prison warden, said that investigators at the site have been unable to find the source, evidence indicates that the fuel is from the historic leak that was believed to have been contained. The Division of Water Quality notified the prison on Sept. 14 of the state’s intent to enforce what could be up to $25,000 in fines per day that the leaks occur. The prison has 30 days to respond.

Danny Smith, surface water supervisor with the state Division of Water Quality, said that it was difficult to find a source for the leaks that occurred in February and March. “It appears that it was a spill that occurred some time ago. It could be under the pavement. It could be leaking into the storm drain. That is still conjecture.”

The prison has been very responsive this year to the spills, Smith said, “it’s not like they have been sitting on their hands.”

Finding the Fuel

The city fire department hazmat team responded to the February spill, wrote Mark Senior, a project engineer for Raleigh, in an email to city officials obtained by the Record. The team was certain that the spill was from prison property, and they suspected that it was coming from the underground fuel deposit.

The fuel reappeared in March and again in early September—following a pattern of surfacing after periods of heavy rain.

Bill Stovall, director of engineers for the Department of Public Safety, confirmed that the prison had a leak in 1999 from an underground fuel line. The spill covered around one-quarter acre of area down eight to 10 feet to the water table. However, it extended underneath the maximum security building and could not be easily recovered. Instead, prison officials were permitted to install a containment-and-monitoring-well system.

By email on Sept. 10, Eric Green with the Wake County Department of Environmental Services notified state and federal officials, and the consultant Environmental Protection Services of Vermont that fuel was found in one of those wells, indicating that the old spill was moving.

Green found that fuel was entering a monitoring well and the storm sewer by traveling along underground pipes.

Mark Powers, supervisor of the state Division of Waste Management, said that underground pollutants often travel along buried pipes. He said the easiest “path is usually to follow a line, and then where it finds a crack it can end up in a catch basin.”

Environmental Protection Services of Vermont completed a video inspection of the inside of the prison’s drains pipes the week of Sept. 10  to identify the exact location of the leaks.

Treating the Stream

Rocky Branch Creek drains from Meredith College through N.C. State and Pullen Park before flowing past the prison. As the stream travels in front of the prison, large storm sewer pipes discharge water into the stream.

Environmental consultants installed booms in front of the storm sewer discharge that are designed to absorb fuel from the water’s surface. However, Green noted in his email that the heavy rains on at least two occasions in early September had washed out the booms.

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A visit to the stream outside of the prison parking lot on Monday evening, Sept. 17, revealed the smell of fuel. There was an oil-absorbent boom across the creek on the north side of Western Boulevard.

However, the boom was washed out again sometime during the heavy rains on the night of Sept.18. Engineers for the department of public safety replaced them the next morning.

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A block away from this location, where the greenway begins at the western edge of the Boylan Heights neighborhood, is where resident Karen Polk  said she first smelled the fumes. She called the county immediately. One of her neighbor’s dogs refused to go on its usual greenway jaunt because of the smell, she said.

State to Enforce the Law

On Sept. 12, the state Division of Water Quality issued a notice of violation to Central Prison for its third fuel spill into Rocky Branch Creek this year.

The notice states that when state officials were on site on Sept. 5, there was a strong odor of diesel fuel in the vicinity of the stream and parking lot. They also observed “petroleum release/discharge coursing into Rocky Branch from the stormwater outfall pipe that drains Central Prison.”

Within 30 days, prison officials must explain how much petroleum was spilled, how they manage petroleum products at the facility, what corrective actions were taken, where the petroleum came from, and how they will permanently resolve the issue. The state could impose fines of up to $25,000 per day.

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