Atlanta faces $113,000 state fine for two massive sewage spills

State environmental regulators on Monday hit the city of Atlanta with a $113,000 fine for two massive spills of untreated sewage into local waterways this year.

The two spills, together amounting to nearly 26 million gallons, highlight major problems the city has in detecting when pipes break.

In one incident in April, a collapsed mainline near Apache Trail apparently spewed waste for 12 days before the city’s Department of Watershed Management detected the problem. Rain undermined a tree, which then fell and broke the pipe, according to a statement from the city.

The city initially reported a January spill in the northwest Atlanta area of Ridgewood Heights as being 94,500 gallons. But a subsequent check of internal flow data at a monitoring station revealed that the trunk line had actually collapsed and begun spewing waste several days before crews noticed it.

The estimate was revised to more than 22 million gallons — 234 times worse.

In Ridgewood Heights, heavy rains eroded a stream bank that held up a big sewage pipe, causing the rupture, according to the city’s watershed department.

“The city stated that there was a failure of communication between programs within the city’s Watershed Bureau, which led to the untimely discovery and notifications,” Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division said in a consent order obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “However, the city has revised their communication protocols, their (sanitary sewer overflow) standard operating procedure, and mandated training for staff.”

Similarly, the spill into Camp Creek in April was initially estimated to be much smaller than it actually was. The initial estimate of 9,225 gallons fell below the 10,000-gallon threshold generally considered to be a major spill. But a few days later, the city raised the estimated spill volume to nearly 11,000 gallons.

When the city came back to the EPD with a final estimate, the size of the spill in the southwest Atlanta area near Tuscon Trail Park had jumped to a staggering 3.54 million gallons.

“These spills resulted from a combination of factors and could not have been prevented,” said Jo Ann Macrina, commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management.

Officials in Atlanta have boasted that they have reduced the number of sewage spills since 2004 by more than 60 percent. But the two major spills constitute major setbacks.

Inside the city of Atlanta, ratepayers now face some of the country’s highest water and sewage rates, partly because of the city’s obligation 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. State regulators also can impose civil penalties of up to $50,000 per day for a spill.

The city of Atlanta had 24 major spills of 10,000 gallons or more in the past three years. Combined, the spills were more than 28 million gallons, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September.

But the incidents are not just an Atlanta problem. Money for fines, clean-up and mandatory sewage repairs ultimately come out of the pocket of anyone using the county’s water and sewer system.

DeKalb County had 87 major spills between early 2010 and August of this year. Fulton County had 23 major spills totaling 4.2 million gallons.

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.

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

DeKalb County is operating under a federal order that included a $453,000 civil fine for spills that occurred from 2006 to October 2010. It also faces a $500 fine for every overflow in the future.

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Staff writer April Hunt contributed to this report.