State prepares to issue Atlanta’s water quality permits

For some, concerns new guidelines weaken water quality standards

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is holding a public hearing today on new permits it’s set to issue that govern Atlanta’s combined sewer systems.

A spokeswoman for the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, which along with residents has given feedback on the state’s draft proposal, says the new permit guidelines pose more stringent guidelines to protect the environment.

But others say the proposed guidelines doesn’t do enough to ensure Atlanta doesn’t slide back into the days of polluted waterways.

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 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits set parameters for water quality standards a government must achieve before discharging into waterways. The state administers the permits on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Many local environmental activists have waited years for this hearing. The city hasn’t had new NDPES permits since 2005. Though permits expire after five years, at which point the state could revise the guidelines and solicit public feedback, Atlanta’s two permits — which cover its east and west combined sewer systems — were extended in 2010 for another five years.

While nearly all agree that Atlanta has made tremendous strides towards improving water quality, some say there’s more work to be done.

Activists such as Jackie Echols, head of the South River Watershed Alliance, worry that the proposed permits roll back key water quality requirements that could lead to further pollution.

Echols’ group focuses on the South River, which has for years has lingering pollution despite improvements in Atlanta’s water and sewer infrastructure, she said.

“Removing pollution limits will adversely affect the South River and communities downstream of Atlanta that are just beginning to enjoy and experience the recreational and health value of their river,” Echols said in a press release about the proposed permit.

Jason Ulseth, the designated riverkeeper for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, has a different concern. He wants the new permits to be crystal clear in their definitions. Without that, he said, water quality standard requirements are harder to enforce.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Riverkeeper organization was part of a lawsuit against the city because of the rampant overflows and pollution. That legal challenge led to two federal orders requiring Atlanta to spend billions upgrading its sewer infrastructure.

“We need to make sure this permit is clear, consistent and everybody can uniformly understand it,” Ulseth said.

This matters because the state can levy fines or order repairs if a government violates a permit. Therefore, Ulseth said, the state must be clear about what key terms mean.

Specifically, many in Atlanta’s water community have differing ideas about what constitutes an overflow — the unlawful release of polluted water into a stream or river.

Atlantans have until Feb. 13 to provide feedback on the draft proposals. The state is required to then consider and respond to each comment.

The public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Georgia EPD’s Tradeport training room, located at 4244 International Parkway in Atlanta.

For more information, visit the Georgia EPD website.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.