GREENSBORO — Earlier this spring, water-treatment engineers were investigating everything they knew of to try to find out where all the phosphorous was coming from.
Water-reclamation manager Arthur White was seeing spikes in the amounts of the chemical in sewage hitting the Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant. The amounts, twice the normal load, were coming in faster than the plant could process it.
Engineers tried tweaking their treatment process and tracking the source of the chemical, but they were unable to keep the plant from releasing high levels of phosphorous into Buffalo Creek, putting the city at risk of violating its state water permit.
It wasn’t until water officials visited Cone Mills’ White Oak plant that they realized that the phosphorous problem — and an odor that was overpowering northeast Greensboro — had a common culprit: fashionable blue jeans.
A chemical used in the dyeing of a special denim made there overpowered the mill’s wastewater-treatment ponds and could net Cone a stiff civil penalty, city officials said Wednesday.
White said the denim plant didn’t notify the city as it is required to when it started using the new chemical on a large scale earlier this year.
“We had some problems with it, but we didn’t know where it was coming from,” White said. “We wish they would have told us earlier.”
Cone has a series of water-treatment ponds at its Fairview Street plant where it filters out most of the chemicals it uses before the water is piped to one of the city’s treatment plants. Company spokesman Delores Sides said that earlier in the year, the White Oak plant started producing a lot more of a style of denim that was in high demand from its customers.
But the ponds couldn’t filter out the chemical used in dyeing the new fabric, meaning the plant’s sewage was more than 20 times as potent as before. Sludge also started building up in one of its ponds, killing helpful bacteria that break down sewage and emitting an odor that spurred dozens of residents to complain to the city.
Cone’s problem became the city’s problem, Water Resources Director Allan Williams said. He said the plant should have told the city about the chemical change before it released the waste.
“It makes it awful hard when an industry lets a plant get so out of whack,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, they’re so short-staffed that it is difficult for them.”
Sides denied the plant concealed the problem, saying “at the point we were aware that the phosphorous levels were too high, we notified the city.”
Cone will be issued a violation by the city for not disclosing the change and for not thoroughly pretreating the sewage it piped to the city, Williams said.
In addition, the company will also be charged for the extra chemicals the city had to use to treat the waste and any fine the state issues against the city’s plant.
Greensboro officials have notified the state that it released too much phosphorous into South Buffalo Creek because of the White Oak plant, but state environmental engineer Corey Basinger said it hadn’t reviewed the violation yet. If the city did exceed its permit, it could be fined up to $2,500.
Williams said Cone will be forced to cover the cost of that fine if it is issued.
“If they fine us for this violation, rest assured, we will pass it through to Cone,” he said.
Sides said the plant stopped using the new chemical and is pumping sludge out of its holding tank to restart its own treatment process.
But White said Cone was still sending sewage with high phosphorous levels to the Osborne treatment plant.
Williams said it will be no easy task for the denim maker to stop the odor and get its treatment system back in working order.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.
Contact Matt Williams at
373-7004 or mwilliams@