Published on February 15th, 2016 |6
Flint lessons: Save Memorial Park from sewer overflows now
By Justin Wiedeman, CPA, PE
What have we learned from the water system debacle in Flint Michigan?
We learned that drinking water systems critical to health and welfare were designed, operated and approved by regulatory authorities that endangered the public health and welfare. Further, that just because something is approved by regulators does not make it right or good for the public health and welfare.
To be clear Atlanta’s drinking water system is safe. But similar to Flint, our state regulatory system has failed to protect our neighborhoods, creeks and parks as we continue to suffer from chronic sewage overflows. Further, our city has failed to accurately define the problem, be transparent about the issues and fix the problem.
While our city has spent billions and conditions throughout the city have generally improved, our situation in and around Memorial Park continues to deteriorate. Simply ask the residents and patrons of Memorial Park and they will tell you that they have had enough of chronic sanitary sewer overflows.
What can we do to save Memorial Park from Chronic Sewer Overflows?
On March 1st, we will be asked to approve another 1 cent sales tax often referred to as the MOST. This is in addition to paying some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country.
As tax and ratepayers we certainly deserve accountability for the billions spent, but we should be focused on fixing the chronic sewage overflows that continue in our creeks and parks.
Unfortunately, if our elected leaders don’t address these issues you can fully expect it will get worse, much worse.
As Midtown continues to grow, we run the risk of turning Memorial park into a cesspool as flooding continues and the strength of wastewater increases with increases in population and business activity. Let’s lend our efforts to our neighbors at Memorial Park and support Mary Norwood’s legislative efforts to get this fixed for the long-term.
What do we know about sewage overflows in and around Memorial Park?
The residents of Memorial Park have taken numerous pictures and videos of sewage spewing from manholes in and around Bobby Jones and Memorial Park. This is the problem that residents see and are aware of and has been a problem to my knowledge for decades.
Unfortunately, the residents are not aware of the hundreds of millions of gallons of (combined) sewage being discharged to creeks upstream of the Park annually. Coincidently, the combined sewer overflow discharges occur when Memorial Park and Bobby Jones are inundated (flooding).
What is a combined sewer overflow?
Midtown residents and businesses (and other areas of the City) are served by a combined sewer system, whereby stormwater runoff and sanitary sewerage are transported in the same pipe. The combined sewers connect to the downstream “separated” sewer system at what is called a “CSO Control Facility”.
The combined sewer trunk(s) serving midtown are much larger than the downstream sewer system which ultimately traverses Memorial Park. As a result, combined sewage is discharged upstream of the Park into Tanyard Creek and Clear Creek which are tributaries of Peachtree Creek that flows through the Park.
There is a great deal of history to the hundred year old combined sewer system. Most recently, the city was required to complete remediation projects as part of the 1998 court Consent Decree.
The city chose not to separate the midtown combined sewers and constructed a large deep storage tunnel to intercept flows from the “CSO Control Facility” to minimize discharges to Tanyard and Clear Creek. As a result, the frequency and volume of discharges has been dramatically reduced since the completion of the tunnel project in 2008, but not eliminated.
The system was designed to discharge combined sewer overflow a maximum of 4 times per year from the “CSO Control Facility” to Tanyard and Clear Creek such that water quality downstream
would meet the regulatory requirements.
The combined sewer overflow discharged to Tanyard and Clear Creek is supposed to go through screens and be disinfected. However, the city’s reports show that public health standards are often exceeded by orders of magnitude for large volumes of flow. This represents a significant risk to public health and the environment generally.
For this, the City pays a “stipulated” penalty, a fine which is set in advance for these expected violations. Since the completion of the CSO tunnel project, the City has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for combined sewer overflow discharges exceeding public health and other standards.
The problems with sewage overflows that residents see in and around Memorial Park are exacerbated by flows transmitted from the combined sewer system upstream. As a result, the city must find a holistic solution to eliminate the overflows in the Park as well as the combined sewer overflows discharged upstream of the Park.
Unfortunately, Watershed Management only acknowledges the problems residents can see spewing from manholes in and around Memorial Park, but refuses to acknowledge the combined sewer overflows upstream that residents don’t see.
Most recently, the Watershed Department spent approximately $45 million for a sewage storage tank (Liddell) to solve the Memorial Park overflow problems, but overflows according to residents
have actually worsened. It is clear that the project has not fixed the problem. It is unclear what the Watershed Department plans next.
With respect to the combined sewer overflows, the Watershed Department has published no plans to address the issue, rather the Watershed Department and city Attorney’s office have redefined the term “combined sewer overflow” to “combined sewer system discharge”.
How could the city redefine what a combined sewer overflow is and what does it mean to Memorial Park neighborhoods?
A combined sewer overflow refers to a discharge from a combined sewer system that has not received treatment at a “wastewater treatment facility”. This term had an established definition for decades in the city of Atlanta and nationally in the Clean Water Act. The new definition is inconsistent with the Clean Water Act, previous State permits, the 1998 Consent Decree as well as reports submitted by the city of Atlanta before the definition change.
The change in definition of a combined sewer overflow is critical because the city no longer has a permitting constraint limiting the frequency of combined sewer overflows to Tanyard Creek and Clear Creek. This change in definition took place during the course of a Performance Audit titled Combined Sewer Overflow Consent Decree published in January 2014 as a new City Council was seated.
Rather than holding the Watershed Department and consultants accountable for the failure of the system to perform, the definition change allowed a “nothing to see here” message to the newly seated City Council.
How does the city’s Change in definition of Combined Sewer Overflow impact Memorial Park and Environs?
Certainly, it provides an “out” to the designers of the system such that they have not been held accountable for the hundreds of millions in fees paid and the lack of performance of the system. But
equally or more important, combined sewer overflows are no longer limited in frequency by the State of Georgia.
The city can discharge unlimited volumes, unlimited pollutants with unlimited frequency upstream of Memorial Park into Tanyard Creek and Clear Creek which are tributaries to Peachtree Creek. If pollutant criteria is exceeded, the city simply pays a pre-agreed penalty. Effectively, the regulatory authorities have permitted the discharge as if it is a wastewater treatment facility discharge.
What is the magnitude of combined sewer overflows discharged to Tanyard, Clear Creek and into Peachtree Creek?
In 2012, Tanyard and Clear Creek received approximately 65 million gallons of combined sewer overflow based on 7 discharge events reported by Watershed Management. In 2015, the volume of combined sewer overflow discharged to Tanyard and Clear Creek increased to over 400 million gallons based on 22 discharges reported by Watershed Management.
The duration (time) of the events reported by Watershed Management lasted an average of between 1 and 8 hours. Many of these events show significant exceedance of public health standards.
How are the Issues of the Sewage Bubbling out of the Manhole(s) in Memorial Park and Combined Sewer Overflows related?
The combined sewer system discharges to what is referred to as a “separated” sewer system downstream that ultimately goes to the Peachtree Creek Trunk(s) which traverse Bobby Jones and Memorial Park. This reduces capacity available within the “separated” sewer system exacerbating sewer overflows in and around the park.
Given the nature of hydraulics, I suspect the rate of flow in the “separated” sewer system exceeds the peak hydraulic capacity at the RM Clayton wastewater treatment plant at Marietta Boulevard and Bolton Road, but this information is not available.
So how do we solve this?
The Northside community came together to implement the Nancy Creek Tunnel in the early 2000’s. This general approach can work for Peachtree Creek and solutions are available. But first, the city must accurately and transparently define the problem
This includes what residents see bubbling out of the manhole as well as what residents don’t see which is being discharged upstream of the Park and generally out of sight.
Let’s not repeat the mistakes of Flint and solve this problem now. We must contribute our time and efforts to support our neighbors in and around Memorial Park. Let’s save Memorial Park.
(Justin Wiedeman is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Registered Professional Engineer (PE) with specialized background and experience in forensic accounting and engineering with water and sewer utilities, construction and real estate development matters. He was engaged by the city of Atlanta in 2003 to review Atlanta’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) program and for other matters. He has provided expert testimony in litigation involving Atlanta’s sewer programs on behalf of plaintiffs.)