Atlanta to receive new permits for combined sewers

Some worry proposed changes weaken guidelines

Keith Parsons can’t remember the last time he saw a fish in Intrenchment Creek.

Parsons, a retired water quality specialist with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, has lived near the creek in southeast Atlanta for more than two decades. He thinks a big part of the problem is that Intrenchment receives water discharged from Atlanta’s sewer system upstream.

“This thing has always been essentially a dead stream, even after (Atlanta) claimed it made improvements,” he said on a recent trip to the stream, pointing to tree branches and briars entangled with discarded plastic bags.

But he’s worried it could get even worse. State authorities are preparing to issue new permits to Atlanta that govern how clean water must be before it’s discharged from its combined sewer system, which treats both wastewater and stormwater.

Parsons and other local environmentalists say, under the proposed guidelines, the water quality standards that must be met have been loosened from previous permits.

Many activists have waited years to have input on the permits, which expire every five years. Atlanta’s current permits, which govern its east and west combined sewer facilities, were issued in 2005. But the state extended them in 2010 without public input.

Friday is the deadline the public can submit written comments to the EPD on the proposed guidelines. EPD officials, who reject the notion the regulations are weaker, say they won’t issue the new permits until they respond to each comment.

Among Parsons’ concerns is the state has proposed eliminating limits on “biological oxygen demand,” or BOD, a measure of organic pollution in water. The draft permits also eliminate limits on total suspended solids — particles of silt, for example. The presence of total suspended solids, or TSS, can indicate other potential pollution problems, he said.

Jason Ulseth, of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization, said the proposed draft fails to clarify critical terms, such as what constitutes unpermitted spills of polluted water.

“It is critical that permit language is uniform so that permit conditions and requirements can be clearly understood and consistently applied,” Ulseth said.

Jac Capp, chief of the EPD Watershed Protection Branch, said the proposed permits have new requirements, such as green infrastructure improvements to address stormwater runoff. Those changes, he said, will alleviate strain on combined sewer systems and ultimately improve local waterways.

Under a combined system, both sanitary waste and stormwater are carried in a single pipe to a treatment plant before the flow is expelled into a waterway. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permits set the parameters for water quality a government must achieve before discharging into creeks and rivers.

Capp thinks there are likely multiple reasons for Intrenchment Creek’s problems that have nothing to do with Atlanta’s sewer system. For example, the creek has a small flow under dry conditions, and hot temperatures can be harmful to aquatic life.

EPD officials also said the BOD and TSS requirements are no longer needed because they aren’t good indicators of whether the combined sewer systems are performing as designed. What’s more, they say, the standards were designed to govern municipal waste facilities — not combined sewer systems.

Jackie Echols, head of the South River Watershed Alliance, said removing any previously-held standard is tantamount to backsliding — a violation of a federal law that requires new permits to be at least as stringent as the prior ones.

“EPD can justify it any way they like,” she said. “The law doesn’t allow for the argument they are using. It’s backsliding. Period.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the agency still reviewing the draft permit and declined comment.

Atlanta fell under federal oversight in the late 1990s following a lawsuit over its rampant water pollution. As a result, Atlantans have paid some of the highest water rates in the country for years to fund a roughly $2 billion overhaul of its sewer system. The city has dramatically reduced the number of overflows each year because of those improvements.

Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina said the city has completed all of the remedial work required by the federal consent decree, and that the proposed guidelines reflect those improvements, while adding new planning and stormwater management requirements.

EPD’s Capp said the state takes all feedback from the public seriously.

“We care very much about their comments, and we will take a look very closely before we make our final decisions,” he said. “That’s what this process is supposed to be about.”