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Passing the Sniff Test
Atlantas new sewage permits relaxes requirements for removing solids
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ATLANTA - The Ga. Department of Natural Resources' Environmental Protection Division (EPD) granted new permits for Atlanta's Combined Sewer Systems (CSS) that relaxes requirements for removing solids and sewage in the waters released to tributaries that become the South River.

That concerns local officials and advocates who say the new permits are less stringent and unfairly lenient on Atlanta while putting more burden on communities and environments downstream.

Residents who live near the South River say the waters have gotten better over the years but still attest to the smell of fresh sewage after a heavy rain.

Rockdale County, the City of Conyers, residents in Newton County, nonprofits and private citizens opposed the then-proposed permits during a public hearing in February.

Hoke Thomas, who has owned the Snapping Shoals hydro-electric facility in Newton County since 1976, said during the public hearing, that after a heavy rain, "It seems like God flushed the commode… It smells. I can't say enough bad things about it." But he said 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.

Atlanta has an older system that combines sewage and storm water runoff, which leads to sewage discharges during heavy rains.

The new permits effectively remove the requirement for Atlanta to remove a percentage of solids from sewer water before it is discharged into river systems.

In a statement released Aug. 20, the Georgia EPD Chief of Watershed Protection Jac Capp said "These new permits reflect the improvements the city has made to the CSS and include provisions to limit combined sewer overflows to four per year averaged over a three-year period. Before 1998, the city reported 60 overflows per year in the West system as compared to five overflows in the last six years."

Atlanta has two separate CSS systems, East and West. Capp later said the East CSS, which affects the South River, has also seen a significant decrease in overflows and is down to an average of about one a year.

Atlanta has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines due to the sewage discharges. In the late 1990s, because of the overflows, Atlanta's CSSs began operating under a federal consent decree. According to the EPD statement, the city built improvements to address the overflows and separated the storm water and sewage system in most areas, leaving 10 percent of the city with combined sewer and stormwater pipes. "What remains serves the highly developed downtown area where removing it is not practical."

Jacqueline Echols of the South River Watershed Alliance said that the new lower requirements for Total Suspended Solids (TSS) removal and Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) mean the EPD is backsliding on the new permits, which is prohibited.

Echols said, "BOD and TSS were put in the permit as performance standards. EPD did that in 2005. The reason they took them out was because Atlanta couldn't meet the performance standards with the combined sewer system... It was put in as a performance standard, you can't just dismiss it."

At least, said Echols, "Let's replace that with something else that shows that water quality is not being compromised.”

Echols later added, “Do-overs that reduce performance and water quality and benefit the polluter is not what the Clean Water Act intended. Left up to EPD and EPA, 10 years of progress will be flushed down the proverbial combined sewer. Atlanta's new NPDES permit will be weaker than the previous one which is backsliding... We will do all we possibly can to make sure this does not happen."

The EPD's response to the charge of backsliding says although those requirements were considered operational standards in 2005, they are not considered good performance measures now since Atlanta made major improvements.

Capp told The News that TSS removal and BOD requirements are more applicable for domestic wastewater treatment plants, not systems that combine sewer and storm water systems.  There are no national standards for TSS and BOD requirements in CSS systems.

When asked why the TSS and BOD requirements were placed in the 2005 permit if they were not applicable, Capp said, “That 2005 permit was written at a time when those facilities hadn’t been constructed yet. Those were written in a way making some judgements of what was going to happen in the future… It turned out they weren’t good indicators because the wastewaters were so dilute.” The staffers at the EPA agreed those standards shouldn’t be in the new permit, said Capp.

Rockdale Water Resources Director Dwight Wicks said reducing pollution by dilution was a method industrial facilities had attempted to use in the past that the EPA had determined was insufficient.

“Dilution doesn’t change the loading,” of waste in the water, said Wicks. “How many pounds are you putting in? You have to remove it to remove the impact on downstream users.”

Wicks later wrote, “While we commend the steps taken by Ga. EPD to limit the number of overflows per year from the city’s CSS, there still appears to be an allowance for the city to continue to be exempted to a great extent from CSS overflows that are directly discharged into waters of the state – i.e. the South River.”

Rockdale County, which has a separate sewage and storm water system, is expected to have zero overflows in both heavy rain conditions and in dry conditions, said Wicks.

“Under a ‘zero tolerance’ for the metro-area – that apparently does not include the city of Atlanta – overflow events of raw sewage from the sanitary collection system that reached waters of the state are cited as violations of the Clean Water Act.  Rockdale County allocates over $500,000 per year for the repair and detection of rainwater inflow and infiltration into its sanitary sewer collection system.

‘As a result of the reissuance of the city of Atlanta’s permits, the financial burden of improving the water quality within the South River should not be placed solely upon those dischargers into the South and Yellow Rivers who are downstream of Atlanta. What is sought from Ga EPD is consistency and equity for all wastewater system operators within the state of Georgia as its ‘clean water’ goals are implemented.”

The statement from the EPD went on to claim that the new permits were consistent with the consent decree and federal regulations for combined sewer overflow.

Rockdale County Commissioner Doreen Williams, who had attended the February public hearing, said “It is extremely disappointing that the EPD has eliminated the performance standards that will now allow more pollutants into the South River. It is disconcerting that a government agency whose charge is to protect our waterways would make a decision that allows the standards to be less stringent than what was issued in 2005.  This is now a legal issue that goes against the Clean Water Act.”

Rockdale draws its drinking water from the Haynes Creek watershed which feeds the Randy Poynter Reservoir in the north half of the county. Newton County draws its drinking water from the Cornish Creek watershed and Alcovy River and stores the water in the Lake Varner reservoir.

To see the permit, public comments/questions and the EPD’s responses, go to