Atlanta sewage spill fines get initial approval

$378,000 covers seven years of fines; councilman calls list of spills `indictment’

Atlanta is poised to pay $378,000 in fines for spewing more than 147 million gallons of sewage-tainted waste water into the Chattahoochee River and various creeks throughout the region over the past seven years.

The proposed settlement with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division also covers other permit violations, such as the Department of Watershed Management’s failure to monitor water conditions up and down stream from treatment plants, and exceeding permitted levels of effluent discharge for a variety of substances, from ammonia to fecal coliform.

One spill in January 2014 accounted for at least 111.7 million gallons of tainted water flowing into Peachtree Creek when a tunnel gate malfunctioned. A discharge in October 2011 sent 9 million gallons into Intrenchment Creek and killed an estimated 1,200 fish.

There were a total of 216 violations covered by the settlement. A spokeswoman for Watershed Management said the discharges range from raw to partially treated sewage.

The council’s Utility Commission on Tuesday approved allowing the full council to vote on the settlement next week, albeit without a recommendation of approval. Council members hammered Watershed Commissioner JoAnn Macrina with questions for nearly an hour.

Councilman Howard Shook was the lone vote against approving the settlement, saying he thinks the fine is too small to change the department’s “behavior.”

“This, to me, a staggering breach of the public trust,” Shook said. “I’ve been on Utilities for 14 of my 15 years. I thought I had seen it all. This reads like an indictment.”

After asking if the 111 million gallon discharge was a “typo,” Shook noted that the event was enough to fill 168 Olympic-sized swimming pools with “something other than water.” Shook also said he had hoped Macrina would apologize to residents.

Macrina said the state would have made a settlement offer sooner. But it was delayed because the department was in the midst of negotiating an extension of the federal court order to fix its sewer system.

The commissioner also said the $4 billion federal consent decree has contributed to some of the department’s problems, and getting a 13-year extension to complete the consent decree work will help the department address other needs. She said the city’s attorneys negotiated a good deal with the settlement.

“We have spent 15 years on our consent decree … which only focused on the collection system,” Macrina said. “We need to be able to refocus our budget across departmental needs. We identified numerous areas that we had to upgrade, repair, replace, etc. That is what we have been doing for the past two years.

“It isn’t going to be an overnight task. It has taken two years to get where we are and we have a long way to go. But I don’t have anything to apologize for.”