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Published on March 10th, 2016 |

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Council unit reviews Memorial Park sewage issue; no consensus on fix

A marathon city Utilities Committee work session Wednesday afternoon at City Hall produced little agreement on ways to fix flooding and sewage overflows contaminating Atlanta Memorial Park. Despite a lot of divergent rhetoric, they didn’t even agree on what is causing the problems.

Engineer Justin Wiedeman speaks before the City Council's Utilities Committee on the sewage issue at Memorial Park.

Engineer Justin Wiedeman speaks before the City Council’s Utilities Committee on the sewage issue at Memorial Park.

Toward the end of three-plus hours of presentations, rebuttals and community input, city Department of Watershed Management (DWM) Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina and her staff unveiled a short-term, three- to nine-month plan to spend about $400,000 raising five manholes by 2 feet along a sewer main through the flood plain park.

The city’s DWM would then speed up plans to spend $30-35 million lining, repairing and even replacing about two miles of an existing 90-inch sanitary sewer pipe that was installed beneath the park in 1910.

Macrina told members of the City Council’s Utilities Committee that raising the manholes 2 feet would keep waters from Peachtree Creek from flowing into the sewer line during flooding incidents caused by heavy rains. The flooding results in sewage spills such as the one that occurred Dec. 24-26.

But members of the Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy, neighborhood residents, Councilwoman Mary Norwood and engineering consultant Justin Wiedeman totally oppose the action and warn it could even exacerbate the sewage spills.

Wiedeman kicked off the work session with an in-depth analysis and summary of options he had prepared for the Utilities Committee. The report addressed several areas of the city, but the focus was clearly on Memorial Park.

Justin Wiedeman discusses the convergence of combined and separated sewer sytems in the Peachtree Creek Basin.

Justin Wiedeman discusses the convergence of combined and separated sewer systems in the Peachtree Creek Basin.

The Memorial Park area has both a combined sewer system and a separated sewer system converging there, which according to Wiedeman is a major cause of sewage being spilled into Tanyard, Clear and Peachtree creeks and then being deposited on the park’s land and residential properties.

A 100-year-old problem

“A lot of this dates back 100 years,” Wiedeman told the committee and audience that jammed Conference Room 1 at City Hall. Back almost that long ago, Wiedeman said, an engineer named Paul Norcross tried unsuccessfully to convince the city’s watershed management department on the need for a separated sewer system. His arguments were rejected.

“Combined sewers are unusual, the only ones are grandfathered in and they are not built today,” Wiedeman explained. He pointed out that Atlanta still has about 10 percent combined sewers in its total system, almost all in downtown and Midtown, feeding into the Peachtree Creek Basin.

Combined sewers carry both sewage and stormwater through the same pipes. Separated sewers are dedicated to sanitary sewage only.

He explained that the combined and separated sewer systems connect in the Peachtree Creek Basin at a CSO facility, such as the Tanyard Creek CSO. The CSO Control Facility connects the combined sewer to a much smaller separated sewer. The flow is conveyed to the Peachtree Creek trunk pipe with treatment taking place at the RM Clayton Wastewater Treatment Plant.

During wet weather events, flow in excess of the downstream separated sewer capacity goes to the CSO Tunnel and dedicated CSO “minimum” treatment plant, both of which were completed in

Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina presents the departments plan to the Utilities Committee.

Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina presents the department’s plan to the Utilities Committee.

2008. In very wet weather situations, the excess flow that cannot be stored is discharged to Tanyard and Clear creeks.

Wiedeman told the committee members the CSO Control Facilities (there are six of them across the city) “do not provide minimum treatment” based on DWM reports he studied. And, he said “minimum treatment alternatives at CSO Control Facility locations were abandoned after preliminary evaluation in 2001 (for wet weather).” Instead, the West CSO Storage Tunnel was constructed and completed in 2008.

Wiedeman noted that the projects completed in 2008, under the administration of “sewer mayor” Shirley Franklin, did not take into consideration realistic growth in Midtown and on the West Side of Atlanta. Projections from the 1990s were used for forecasts.

Wiedeman, an engineer for about 40 years who has studied the city’s system more than once, told committee members that ending sewage flooding in the Peachtree Creek basin could require a large relief tunnel or finding ways of taking more stormwater out of the system.

“This is something that could cost a lot of money to fix,” he stated.

One option: A relief tunnel

Not all members of the south Buckhead community around Atlanta Memorial Park agree on a single solution to the problems. However, Councilwoman Norwood believes strongly that an underground storage tunnel to hold overflows during heavy rains, like the Nancy Creek Tunnel, is the best solution.

“Why wouldn’t we do a relief tunnel?” Norwood asked Macrina. “With Nancy Creek, we decided to go deep and do a relief tunnel. Why wouldn’t we put in a similar system along Peachtree Creek?

One of the graphics in Wiedeman's presentation shows the operative parts of the Tanyard Creek CSO.

One of the graphics in Wiedeman’s presentation shows the operative parts of the Tanyard Creek CSO.

Why wouldn’t we do a long-term fix for Peachtree Creek?”

But Macrina countered that the two areas are very different. “You can’t use the same solution for two very different situations” she said, referring to the Nancy Creek and Peachtree Creek watersheds.

“We don’t want to spend between $500 million and $2 billion on a storage system where it would not be effective,” Macrina added. That puzzled Norwood and Wiedeman. Both were instrumental in the Nancy Creek tunnel program, which Wiedeman said cost about $175 million.

The plan DWM presented also called for asking parks officials to consider moving the park’s playground out of the flood plain and maybe removing it entirely from the park. But residents and two council members express doubt the city’s plans go far enough to fix the problems.

“We have accelerated the work on the Peachtree [Creek] watershed,” Macrina told members of the committee, along with Council members Norwood and Felicia Moore.

Members of the City Council Utilities Committee present for the meeting were chairperson Natalyn Archibong, Howard Shook, Yolanda Adrean and

This gbraphic from Wiedeman's presentation to the committee shows the various levels and stages of sewage treatment.

This gbraphic from Wiedeman’s presentation to the committee shows the various levels and stages of sewage treatment.

C.T. Martin. Alex Wan did not attend.

The meeting was held a day after Mayor Kasim Reed, other city officials and residents toured Memorial Park to see first-hand the hot areas for sewer leaks and contamination. Flooding and sewage contamination have been an ongoing problem at Atlanta Memorial Park for decades. (See earlier story about Mayor Reed’s visit to Memorial Park on March 8 here.)

Councilwoman Adrean, who represents the Memorial Park area of Buckhead, asked Macrina about a BuckheadView report that the West Area Water Quality Control Facility was offline for the entire month of July last year. She wanted to know how long it was offline, why and if there any spills during that time.

Macrina said the facility was offline for 40 days, June 22-July 31, during the final phase of a year-long pump repair and replacement project for the West Area Tunnel, which she referred to as routine maintenance. What she did not say was that seven of 12 pumps in the tunnel were not operating because they were buried in silt.

The commissioner said the Georgia Environmental Protection Division was aware of the situation and initial approval was given in March 2014. There was no indication whether or not further approval was granted after the first phase of work. She said there were no overflows but there was an effluent problem at one point. The city paid stipulated penalties to EPD.

Adrean also wanted to know what happened regarding a $50 million allocation that Council approved for new screens for the sewer system. And she

Public outreach was a major part of the DWM presentation inside and outside the committee room.

Public outreach was a major part of the DWM presentation inside and outside the committee room at City Hall.

asked for an explanation of changes in definitions regarding “spills, discharges and overflows” in regards to allowances under the new permit issued Aug. 19, 2015, by EPD.

Wiedeman and others have claimed that the new permit is much more lenient than the old one. It drops a limitation to four discharges per CSO Facility per year and changes the definitions of spills, discharges and overflows.

Macrina indicated she did not know what screens Adrean was talking about, but said she would check and report back. As for the new permit being more lenient, Macrina said the new permit issued last August “is more stringent.”

Macrina was handed a document by the mayor’s chief of staff Katrina Taylor Parks, which was said to be the city’s official response to Wiedeman’s presentation. Much of that document dealt with the findings of a “Mayor’s Clean Water Advisory Panel Report” of 2002, which was headed by then Georgia Tech President Dr. G. Wayne Clough. (Wiedeman worked with that panel.)

Adrean attacked the use of the information from that report as being irrelevant due to the age of the data. She said some of it, including growth projections for Midtown and downtown, was based on incorrect, very old data from the 1990s.

Macrina reported to the committee that the administration has spent $125 million to date on the system in the Memorial Park

Craig Pendergrast discusses the concept of including holding ponds into any solution DWM decides on.

Water specialist attorney Craig Pendergrast discusses the concept of including holding ponds into any solution DWM decides on.

area and has approved an additional $30 million.

She said that in dry weather, the 90-inch main pipe going through the park is two thirds full, with 52 percent of that flow coming from DeKalb County into the Peachtree Creek Basin. In wet weather, DeKalb’s contribution goes up to 64 percent.

Residents weigh in on the topic

As the podium was turned over for public comments, Memorial Park neighborhood resident Gail Driebe stated, “I have seen every administration kick the can down the road. The city can step up and stop variances that allow more houses in a flood plain and actions that pave paths in parks.”

Driebe was followed by Tawya Washington carrying her one-month-old baby. “The only one thing that brings me out of my home one month after giving birth is the threat of losing my home.” She wants a similar meeting for her Peoplestown area of the city.

Craig Pendergrast, a water specialist attorney, told the committee, “Stormwater is very much the cause of the problems. Too much water coming through the line and shooting up through the manholes.”

Tom Torrance said he believes the city is not getting good information from its staff and consultants. “We have a serious challenge with mismanagement,” he said. Looking at Wiedeman, he added, “You tell a side of the story that hasn’t been told.” He then admonished the committee chair, “Ask EPD and EPA to give a presentation to the committee on enforcement.”

Torrance added, “You want to beautify on top but not do anything underground,” talking about improving the infrastructure. “This is a real issue that needs to be addressed.”

At the end of the meeting, Councilman Shook indicated he thought the day’s proceedings represented a step backward. But Wiedeman told BuckheadView that Shook later explained what he really wants is more of a debate on the various issues and discussion points between Wiedeman and Macrina. There no doubt will be a next time.

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