Big sewage spills bring heavy toll for cleanup, fines, prevention

Despite a drop in both frequency and volume, metro Atlanta’s often-invisible large sewer spills hit residents right in the wallet — and will for years to come.

More than 150 major spills were recorded in the five-county core region of metro Atlanta since January 2010 — an average of roughly one major spill per week. The spills amounted to nearly 38.6 million gallons of discharge, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through open records requests.

That tally does not include hundreds of smaller incidents that make up the majority of illegal sewage spills.

The spills, which typically happen without much public awareness, poison waterways, threaten property values and, in the city of Atlanta, lead to some of the country’s highest water and sewage rates.

The major overflows of more than 10,000 gallons were blamed on a variety of factors: tree roots, rags, rain, pipe failure, debris and blockages caused by fats and grease. They were heavily concentrated in the older sewage systems of Atlanta and DeKalb County, but they can happen anywhere. For instance, Cobb County had two spills of more than 10,000 gallons.

“There are still problems, and there are still things that need to be fixed,” said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an advocacy group that sued the city of Atlanta for rampant sewage spills and environmental contamination in the mid-1990s.

Fixes and fines

Atlanta officials say fixes are coming in the form of massive construction projects and routine maintenance. But they are not cheap. The city’s plan to build a 10 million-gallon storage tank to keep sewage from fouling Peachtree Creek could cost more than $40 million, for example.

Penalties, too, can be steep. DeKalb County is operating under a federal order that included a $453,000 civil fine for previous spills; that fine has been paid. It also faces a $500 fine for every overflow going forward. At the current rate of spills, both major and minor, that’s about $90,000 a year — ultimately paid by anyone using the county’s water and sewer system.

“There is an indirect cost to every spill,” said Joe Basista, head of DeKalb County’s water/sewer department.

DeKalb suffered 87 major spills since early 2010, according to documents from the state’s Department of Natural Resources. That was the worst record, by number of major spills, in the metro region during that time. But other jurisdictions have their own troubles. Fulton had 23 major spills totaling 4.2 million gallons.

The city of Atlanta had 24 major spills amounting to nearly 28.8 million gallons in the past 31 months.

The city has spent more than $1.5 billion to update a sewage system that is a century old in some places and still includes a few clay pipes. Earlier this year, city officials said they planned to spend an additional $445 million.

Atlanta reduced the volume of sewage spills by 97 percent from 2004 to 2010 and has inspected more than 99 percent of its 1,573-mile sanitary sewer system.

Officials in Gwinnett and Cobb counties say they have avoided widespread spills in their newer systems through investments in routine maintenance. Gwinnett’s program includes hydraulic cleaning and inspections with television cameras. Cobb has an annual program to remove tree roots that cause blockages in pipes, and it paid upfront for a design that reduces the number of pressurized pipes across its collection system.

“Every system in the world has problems — that’s just the nature of the beast,” said Ken Jacob, operations manager for Cobb’s water department. “What’s important is to plan and do the preventative maintenance before a problem occurs.”

Making up for past

Sewage spills threaten environmental health, home values and budgets throughout the region.

More than a decade ago, federal and state regulators took action to crack down on the city of Atlanta after serious spills fouled parks, streams, neighborhoods and the Chattahoochee River. The city’s infrastructure crumbled to tragic results: A pipe collapsed in a Midtown parking lot in June 1993, causing a sinkhole that killed two hotel workers.

By the end of 1997, Atlanta had been fined almost $20 million for unauthorized sewage discharges into waterways, according to one study.

Sewer systems break federal law every time human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials dump into waterways. Customers pay the price, either spending upfront on ways to make sure what goes into the toilet doesn’t foul local rivers and streams, or paying the fines for mandatory upgrades when spills occur.

In 2008, the city of East Point agreed to pay a $170,000 state fine for violations related to sewage spills dating back to 2004, including 73 spills of more than 10,000 gallons. The city also agreed to spend at least $150,000 on stream restoration.

Penalties for sewage spills depend partly on whether the spills are chronic problems that could have been fixed earlier, said Marzieh Shahbazaz, manager of compliance and enforcement at the state’s Environmental Protection Division. The ultimate goal is to prevent environmental damage, not to collect cash, she said.

Atlanta ratepayers now face some of the country’s highest water and sewage rates partly because of the city’s need to pay $2 billion for sewer system fixes required by federal regulators. The city also charges a 1 percent sales tax that could raise more than $400 million over four years for sewer projects.

Under a federal consent decree to address its sewer problems, Atlanta can be penalized $1,500 per overflow. Federal and state regulators also can impose civil penalties for overflows at their discretion.

DeKalb is raising rates 11 percent a year for three years, starting last year, to cover the $1.345 billion in improvements to its water and sewer system. About $700 million will cover work just for sewers, split evenly between upgrades to treatment plants and the collection system.

Learning the hard way

Sewage spills can come with devastating effects. One night in 2009, DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May returned home from a meeting about raising water/sewer rates to pay for upgrades.

He found raw sewage flowing from the downstairs toilet. The neighborhood’s pipes had backed up, leaving his basement as the only escape valve for dozens of homes.

“We had 3 inches of sewage in our house, basically,” May said.

The spill, combined with a 2009 flood, forced May to unload his house in a short sale.

Scott Laughlin, a resident of the northwest Atlanta area of Ridgewood Heights, said he is troubled by how hard it is to find information about a January spill that dumped 22 million gallons into Peachtree Creek. Laughlin, who has worked in soil and water analysis, had hoped to kayak in the creek a few yards from his home.

Now, he’s not sure that’s a good idea.

“Residents should really be given more information,” he said.

The spill made an impact on how the city does things. Technicians observe real-time data from sensors to find abnormalities that can indicate broken pipes.

Jo Ann Macrina, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, said, “When we see an indication that something is going on, we can do something about it.”

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