By Ivey Schofield
When Elizabethtown leaders realized they needed to upgrade the town’s wastewater treatment facility, they decided to take a countywide approach that could help other communities accommodate new homes and businesses.
Elizabethtown, home to about 3,100 residents in the heart of Bladen County, received $13.6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act last year to double its sewer capacity.
The project could ultimately set Bladen County up for growth, said Greg Martin, the county manager.
“While it’s not sexy, it is a huge project that has massive benefits for the town and the county,” said Dan Rideout, the town manager for Elizabethtown. “You won’t be reading about Elizabethtown in 15 years when they have poor drinking water and raw sewage running into the Cape Fear River.”
A regional wastewater system has been a topic of conversation in this southeastern North Carolina county for decades. Many municipalities have limited funds to adequately maintain and upgrade their facilities.
Connecting to a regionalized facility could be more cost efficient. Still, it comes with a hefty price tag for some of the poorest communities in the state. So far, other towns haven’t joined the project.
The town of Bladenboro, for example, got $12 million in ARPA funds, federal money allocated during the coronavirus pandemic, but it would cost $28 million to extend its sewer lines by 12 miles into Elizabethtown.
For years, the Bladenboro Town Council had resisted raising its sewer rates for residents, who have an average per capita income of less than $22,000 a year.
“We’re in an area that is well known for everyone being very poor,” said Bladenboro Town Administrator Kelsey Hammond. “Any time there’s a substantial increase on something so essential like sewer, it would be an intense decision to make.”
That decision came last year, when the council voted to raise rates by 8%. The average monthly water and sewer bill for Bladenboro households went from $42 to $45, according to Hammond.
After the rate hike, the General Assembly allocated $12 million to Bladenboro for the sewer line extension to Elizabethtown.
The impact of a regionalized wastewater treatment facility on the monthly bills of residents in Bladenboro isn’t yet clear, Hammond said. The town is currently studying the financial feasibility of extending its sewer lines.
“It’s a major undertaking,” Hammond said, “but regionalization is obviously the best option.”
Since 1974, Elizabethtown has been treating wastewater from Dublin, a town of 265 residents about eight miles away. Residents there spend an average of $53 per month for sewer service.
The expansion project likely won’t affect Dublin’s sewer capacity, said Jonathan Ward, the town’s public works director.
In Bladenboro, however, the capacity would double to 1 million gallons per day, according to Elizabethtown documents, which would increase the maximum usage from 18,750 people to 41,600 people.
Bladenboro’s current treatment facility, Hammond said, wouldn’t be able to handle that increase.
Overall, Elizabethtown’s expanded facility will be able to treat 3.55 million gallons per day – double its current amount.
“It’s an exciting and very positive thing for the county,” Greg Martin said. “We’re very fortunate Elizabethtown has obtained funding from the state to expand its plant, which will increase capacity for future economic development and residential development.”
Next up: White Lake?
Originally, Rideout said, Elizabethtown wanted to extend sewer lines to White Lake, a major economic driver seven miles away.
White Lake, home to about 850 year-round residents, draws 200,000 tourists each year who camp, shop and eat locally.
“When we started this discussion, the priority was White Lake,” Rideout said. “Our elected officials in the state legislature see it differently. They were adamant Bladenboro was the priority and not White Lake.”
White Lake Town Administrator Sean Martin said without state funding it wasn’t feasible for the town to join the regionalized wastewater treatment plant.
“I’m not going to put that burden on the taxpayer,” Sean Martin said.
Four years ago, Sean Martin said, White Lake took out a $5.5 million loan to upgrade its sewage system. He said the facility was currently sustainable for the town’s population.
But White Lake isn’t opposed to eventually joining the regionalized system, Sean Martin said.
“Anything we can do to increase efficiency and effectiveness for the taxpayers is something we’d be interested in,” he said.
Elizabethtown hopes to begin construction of its facility in May 2023 and finish by September 2024, according to town documents.
“We’re investing strategically for the long haul,” Rideout said. “It will be a huge savings for Bladenboro, Dublin and eventually White Lake.