Buckhead residents up in arms over polluted park

Call it an overflow. Call it a discharge. Dan Phippen simply calls it a problem

Raw sewage, its stench wafting from the playground in Atlanta Memorial Park near his Buckhead home.

The father of young two children, who says he has dealt with the muck ever since moving to the neighborhood in 2013, is among those now calling on Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration and the Department of Watershed Management to fix it.

Phippen came to a city council’s utilities meeting Tuesday armed with photographs of children playing amid the mess, and appealed to city leaders to put an end to the problem that he says occurs nearly every time it rains. But by the end of the meeting, he found himself a spectator to a debate between councilmembers over whether the sewage issue constitutes an “overflow” — the type of illegal release of polluted water that landed Atlanta in trouble with federal authorities years ago — or is merely a “discharge,” a spill of contaminated water that has received some measure of treatment.

For Phippen, who says he’s trying to understand Atlanta’s heavily regulated and complicated water and sewer system, only one thing matters — that his kids have a safe and clean place to play.

“Is that too much to ask living in a developed world, in a world class city?” he said. “We bought this house because it’s across the street from a beautiful park where you can watch your kids play. But most of the time, we don’t feel comfortable letting our kids play there.”

City officials say the park and playground rests in a flood plain, leading to the problems. Watershed attempted to reduce the number of sewage spills by building a 10-million-gallon wastewater storage tank near Cheshire Bridge and Liddell Drive in recent years. They believe the area will benefit from improvements DeKalb County is making to its sewer system, as well.

Watershed officials are considering whether to raise manholes to reduce the pressure that comes from heavy rain events. What’s more, water and parks leaders will discuss whether to relocate the playground.

“We’re taking it very seriously. This is about community health and safety,” said Watershed spokeswoman Lillian Govus. “There is no question about the seriousness with which we’re taking it.”

Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd was dismayed at the images of children playing in sloppy soil, noting: “We cannot accept anybody being contaminated: our kids, anyone.”

Councilwoman Mary Norwood, backed by Council members, Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens, is behind legislation that calls on Reed’s administration to address the Memorial Park problem and report back within 90 days. The resolution was approved by the utilities committee — after heavy debate over the “overflows” versus “discharge” issue — and heads to the full council for consideration.

Even if the spills are not overflows — the worst type of contamination that can trigger all kinds of penalties — Norwood says it’s a public health hazard.

“I don’t care what you call it,” she said. “I want it out of our communities.”