A number of people spoke out Thursday night during a public hearing against the proposed permits that the city of Atlanta is seeking from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).
Atlanta is seeking federal permits to effectively reduce the amount of waste it must clear from sewer water before it is discharged into river systems. Atlanta has an older system that combines sewage and storm water runoff, which leads to sewage discharges during heavy rains.
The public hearing was hosted by the EPD at the EPD Tradeport Training Room located at 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta, Georgia and 17 concerned citizens voiced their displeasure with the permits, offered ideas for what else should be in the permit and offered solutions to Atlanta's combined sewage and storm water system.
Rockdale County was well represented and residents and county officials defended the South River, which starts in Fulton County and flows through Rockdale and Newton counties before ending at Lake Jackson.
Rockdale County resident Peter Dykstra told EPD officials and a room full of attendees that he's a frequent user of the South River and can't believe that this discussion is still being had today.
"The first thing I have to say, with all do respect, in the year 2015, I'm a little appalled and embarrassed that this is still a thing. That this is still an issue," said Dykstra. "The Clean Water Act was passed 43 years ago. I find it hard to accept that that's not enough time to fix the problems with the sewer system and keep the South River and Chattahoochee River clean."
Dykstra says Atlanta officials using a lack of money as a reason to why they can't to fix their sewer system issues isn't a viable excuse one because the city has spent millions of dollars on other endeavors.
"In half of those 43 years they've found the money to build a Falcons football stadium, tear it down and build a new one," Dykstra said. "We need to move on this. We need the EPD's help."
The cost of separating combined sewer overflow areas is significant; the city of Grand Rapids, Mich. reportedly eliminated most of its combined sewer overflow areas with construction from 1991-2011 at a cost of $360 million.
Atlanta will provide more than $200 million for the construction of the new $1.2 billion Falcons stadium.
Another Rockdale County resident, Russell Tonning, says he simply wanted to read a passage from the EPD's own website off his phone while he spoke at the podium. The passage he read spoke about how the EPD's mission is to protect the environment.
"This is from the EDP website," he said. "That's your goal and mission. I hope you fulfill it."
South River Watershed Alliance President Jacqueline Echols told the audience she was shocked that she was back in a permit fighting situation with Atlanta after being involved in one a decade earlier.
"For me that's a little much to fathom at this point," Echols said. "The anti-backsliding provision of the Clean Water Act clearly states that limits in a reissued permit must be as stringent as those in the original permit."
The new permits would reportedly reduce the amount of solids and biological waste Atlanta is required to clean out of its sewage water before dumping it into the South River water system.
"Keep in mind that the South River is small. A small river with a lot of poop goes a long way," said Echols.
Post 2 County Commissioner Doreen Williams also took the trip to the public hearing. She wanted to let the EPD know how important the South River was to the recreational activities in Rockdale.
"I came specifically as a commissioner tonight to remind the EDP that the South River flows through Rockdale County," Williams said. "It is used in recreation. It is used as a PATH (walking/biking trail) system that we have invested heavily in. It needs to be a beautiful, pleasant place that it is designed to be. The county is creating a resolution expressing what we feel ought to happen."
The South River Resolution will let the EPD know the county's and the City of Conyers officials statement on the issue of Atlanta's permits and state what the government officials believe should happen, said Rockdale Water Resources Director Dwight Wicks, who also spoke at the public hearing.
Wicks told the EPD he was simply looking for compliance from the Atlanta and consistency from the EPD on performance standards.
He says that Rockdale County has to comply with its strict permits so why can't Atlanta - a city with significantly more money - do the same.
"When EPD visits Rockdale County, we too have wastewater treatment facilities. We will not be discussing (Biological Oxygen Demand) and (Total Suspended Solids).We will be discussing phosphorus and nitrogen to the minute levels," said Wicks. "Now I don't understand why we have to be so strict on our water levels, and BOD and TSS are going to be removed from another permit. So again, I'm just looking for consistency and compliance."
Newton County resident Hoke Thomas, who has owned the Snapping Shoals hydro-electric facility in Newton County since 1976, says that water quality has improved in the decades since he's owned the facility and praised EPD and the city of Atlanta for their work.
But he also acknowledged that the runoff from heavy rainfall contributes mightily to the pollution of the river.
"It seems like God flushed the commode," said Thomas. "It smells. I can't say enough bad things about it."
Thomas is not so optimistic that anything positive will happen with the South River anytime soon.
"In my lifetime, I don't think the South River... will ever change," he said. "You need money to make things happen and Atlanta just doesn't have the money."
EPD Wastewater Regulatory Program Manager Jane Hendricks told the audience that the EPD would not be responding to any comments but all comments would be taken into consideration.
Written comments from the public are due to GA EPD, 2 MLK, Jr. Drive, Suite 1152E, Atlanta, GA 30334 or via email at EPDcomments@dnr.state.ga.us by Friday, February 13, 2015. In comments by email, use the words "NPDES Permit Reissuance - City of Atlanta Combined Sewer System" in the subject line.
Rockdale draws its drinking water from the Haynes Creek watershed which feeds the Randy Poynter Reservoir in the north half of the county.