Atlanta wastewater plant cited for polluting Chattahoochee River

Riverkeeper to visitors: Stay out of the river between the R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Center and West Point Lake amid ongoing sewage treatment issues
Parker Durance kayaks on the Chattahoochee River at Don White Memorial Park in Roswell on July 3, 2023. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller

Credit: Natrice Miller

Parker Durance kayaks on the Chattahoochee River at Don White Memorial Park in Roswell on July 3, 2023. (Natrice Miller/

City of Atlanta has been tagged by state environmental regulators for a litany of violations at its largest wastewater treatment plant, including discharging poorly treated effluent with high levels of E. coli, ammonia and phosphorus into the Chattahoochee River.

The notice of violations — and a related report from an inspection by Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) regulators last month — reveal major issues at the facility, from broken equipment to plant growth and “solids” on the walls of some treatment basins. Local riverkeepers, meanwhile, say they are still finding alarming levels of bacteria where the plant empties into the Chattahoochee near Atlanta Road.

Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s executive director, said they are recommending that anyone planning to paddle, swim or fish on the river limit contact with water along the 70-mile stretch between the facility’s outfall and West Point Lake near LaGrange.

“It’s hit-or-miss right now, so we are advising people to stay out,” Ulseth said.

At the center of the problems is the R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Center, located in northwest Atlanta near a bend in the Chattahoochee River. The facility, one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast, is permitted to discharge as much as 100 million gallons of treated wastewater every day into the river.

But there are limits to how much bacteria and other compounds can be left in the wastewater when it’s released into the river. Contact with water containing high levels of E.coli and other sewage-borne pathogens can lead to serious illness, while ammonia and phosphorus can feed algae blooms and cause fish kills.

The R.M. Clayton facility’s wastewater discharges have failed to meet state and federal standards dozens of times since last July, according to a March 22 letter sent by EPD notifying the City of Atlanta of the violations. The letter was addressed to Commissioner Mikita Browning, who leads Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management.

In the letter, EPD officials say levels of E. coli, fecal coliform, ammonia, phosphorus and more in the facility’s wastewater discharges into the river, exceeded the allowable limits 48 times between July 2023 and February. The plant is required to tell EPD about violations within 24 hours of learning of them, but failed to do so, the letter says.

Over that same time, R.M. Clayton also reported 21 outfall spills with levels of “suspended solids,” a measure used to gauge particle content in wastewater, that were above permitted limits. But the problems at the plant did not stop in February.

Just last month, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper detected concentrations of “colony forming” units of E. coli around the facility’s outfall that were north of 120,000 units per 100 milliliters. That’s more than 950 times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is safe for swimming and other recreation.

After the riverkeeper notified state regulators, EPD inspectors made an unannounced visit to the R.M. Clayton plant on March 7. That visit, documented in a report shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, found many key parts of the plant’s treatment systems were offline.

At the time of the inspection, though some filtration systems were working, only two of the facility’s eight “clarifiers,” settling tanks used to remove solids, were operational. About a month before the inspection, none of the clarifiers on site were working, the report says EPD officials were told.

Inspectors also found that only three of the four channels where wastewater is treated with ultraviolet light before being discharged into the river were functioning. The report notes that “solids” were visible on the walls of the channels and that wastewater heading toward the outfall that empties into the river “had a light brown color to it.”

In its letter about the violations, EPD requested that the City of Atlanta submit a plan to fix the documented issues. After initially giving the city 14 days to deliver the plan, EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips said the agency granted the city an extension until April 29. Lips said EPD has not received that plan yet, but expects the city will meet the deadline. So far, no fines have been proposed for the violations.

In a statement, Commissioner Mikita Browning of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management said the city had already begun developing a corrective action plan before the inspection and will submit that framework by the April 29 due date.

Browning added that repairs on the malfunctioning clarifiers are in progress. In the meantime, eight mobile units have been deployed to pick up the slack and disinfectants are being used to lower E. coli levels. Today, bacteria levels were at a safe level, but Browning added that they can fluctuate during rain events.

“The Department of Watershed Management has been working diligently to reduce E. coli levels,” Browning said.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, meanwhile, said it is still detecting spikes in bacteria levels downstream of the treatment plant. Just two days ago, the riverkeeper found E. coli concentrations above 10,000 units per 100 milliliters where the R.M. Clayton plant empties into the river.

Views of the Chattahoochee River seen from Nantahala Outdoor Center shown on July 3, 2023. (Natrice Miller/


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For much of the last century, the Chattahoochee River faced serious water quality issues, mostly due to sewage from the the City of Atlanta spilling into the river. In 1998, Atlanta entered into a consent decree with the EPA, EPD and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, requiring the city to improve its wastewater treatment practices and file quarterly reports with U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Ulseth said water quality has improved dramatically since then, but that there’s been a recent — and concerning — string of pollution incidents on the Chattahoochee.

Last summer, a series of sewage spills from Fulton County’s Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility near Roswell led the National Park Service to shut down an 11-mile stretch of the river to recreation, during the height of the swimming and tubing season. EPD has proposed fining Fulton County just over $113,000 for the incident.

Ulseth said he hopes the wastewater problems aren’t the start of a return to pre-1998 conditions on the river, but that the operational failures at the plant could take time to correct.

“This isn’t an overnight fix for the city,” Ulseth said. “Because of how bad of shape the plant is in, it’s going to be months before we see any significant progress.”