Commentary The playground area of Atlanta Memorial Park taped off after it was contaminated with sewage during an earlier flood incident.

Published on March 18th, 2016 |

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DWM Commissioner’s claim new permit is ‘more stringent’ rated False

(Editor’s Note: BuckheadView’s new BV FactCheck is based on the concept of the national PolitiFact. BV FactCheck checks the validity of claims and comments FactCheckmade regarding news issues such as the flooding and sewage pollution of Peachtree Creek and Atlanta Memorial Park. Items checked will be rated on the basis of Unrelated (to the issue), True, Mostly True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire. The ratings will be based on research available to BuckheadView and input from professional engineers.

During a presentation to the Atlanta City Council’s Utilities Committee March 9, the city’s Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina stated that the city’s new CSO facility permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division are “more stringent” than the previous permit.

Fact Check type inseert decided to evaluate DWM Commissioner Macrina’s statements that the new combined sewer system state-issued discharge permit is more stringent than the previous permit. The permit allows DWM to discharge to Buckhead creeks during wet weather from the combined sewer system serving Midtown.

In context, the city of Atlanta has NPDES permits that are issued by the state of Georgia that allow discharges to waters of the United States under the framework of the Clean Water Act. In this

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.

case, we are focused on the combined sewer system which carries both stormwater runoff and sanitary sewage in the same pipe.

Combined sewers serve the vast majority of Midtown including the area from Piedmont Park to Georgia Tech. The Atlanta Midtown area continues to grow at a rapid pace.

When it rains, combined sewage is too much for the normal conveyance and treatment system and overflows to a storage tunnel for treatment at a dedicated facility adjacent to the RM Clayton Plant (near Ridgewood Road).

When the storage tunnel is full or is down for maintenance, the combined sewer system from Midtown discharges from “Control Facilities” to Clear Creek and Tanyard Creek in Buckhead. The discharge locations are upstream of Ardmore Park, Tanyard Creek Park, Bobby Jones Golf Course and Memorial Park.

The levels of E-coli remain unacceptably high in Clear Creek, Tanyard Creek and Peachtree Creek as well as sewer trash and debris, although conditions have improved since the completion of Consent Decree projects in 2008. In the past several years, these discharges, until recently categorized by DWM as combined sewer overflows, have become more frequent.

In the March 9, 2016, work session of the City Utilities Committee Macrina stated, “The permit issued in August 2015 is actually more stringent, not less stringent; we have more requirements that we have to meet (51:20).”

Macrina was referring to a new permit issued by the state of Georgia most often referred to by the acronym NPDES. The previous permit was issued in 2005 when the West CSO Tunnel and dedicated treatment facility were under construction. They were completed in 2008.Fact permits 1

The issue is important because the level of treatment varies from complete treatment at the RM Clayton Treatment Facility to no treatment during wet weather events with several iterations in between. It’s a complex system that non-engineers have a difficult time understanding.

The focus of the combined sewer permits is wet weather. The combined sewer system has two modes of discharge. During wet weather, the combined sewage is stored in a tunnel system and treated at a dedicated facility called the West Area Water Quality Control Facility (“West Plant”) near Ridgewood Road in Buckhead.Fact permit 2

When the storage tunnel fills during wet weather, or if the West Plant is down for maintenance, then combined sewage is discharged to Tanyard Creek and Clear Creek. The discharge takes place from the Combined Sewer Overflow Control Facilities now referred to as a Combined Sewage Control Facility.

Note that the city referred to these discharges, until recently, as a combined sewer OVERFLOW, as did the previous permit. The new permit changes that terminology, dropping the term OVERFLOW. There has been much discussion about this and BuckheadView will certainly analyze the changes in definitions in subsequent articles.

BuckheadView consulted Justin Wiedeman, a professional engineer with knowledge and experience with Atlanta’s combined sewer facilities, to provide objective criteria from the actual permits, rather than subjective statements.

According to Wiedeman “it is difficult to compare permits that do not limit pollutant parameters that are generally the focus of a NPDES permit. Typically, Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Fact Permit3Total Suspended Solids (TSS), Ammonia as Nitrogen and Total Phosphorus would have limits, but these permits do not.

“However, the permits have other parameters that can be compared on an objective basis. For example, the West Plant was required to meet Performance Standards for BOD and TSS removal, which were consistent with the Consent Decree. These standards, which required the treatment to remove a percentage of pollutants, were deleted from the new permit although they remain in the Consent Decree.”

While Wiedeman is unclear on why the provisions were deleted, it does not appear that these provisions were enforced under the previous permit.

Although the permit that expired in August 2015 had these requirements, the performance of the facilities did not comply with the requirements based on required submittals by DWM to USEPA/GAEPD. DWM stopped reporting these results in quarterly required reports even before the previous permit expired.

Similarly, the previous permit included limits for the frequency of discharges, previously defined as an OVERFLOW, from the CSO Control Facilities to Clear Creek and Tanyard Creek given that the facilities do not provide the minimum level of treatment much less complete treatment.Fact Permit 4

Discharge and overflow were used interchangeably in the previous permit, but that was changed for the new permit.

DWM reports show the city was not complying with that requirement either, but the state also did not enforce these provisions of the permit.

It’s important to note the Consent Decree required the consultants to develop a program, if the storage and treatment option was selected rather than separating the sewers, to have no more than four (4) overflows per year. This was the design criteria submitted to City Council, under threat of judicial sanctions for implementing a compliance program, which was approved and funded at significant taxpayer expense.

This certainly begs the question – was the city relieved of the requirement because it could not achieve the performance?

There are many other requirements and complexities introduced by new and materially modified definitions; but that’s for another discussion, as the new permit has a much greater level of ambiguity and complexity that is subjective in nature.

Fact Check type inseertConclusion:
Macrina did not present any evidence supporting her statements to City Council that the new permit of August 2015 is “more stringent” than the previous permit.

Independently, BuckheadView finds no supporting evidence based on a comparison of the permits. In fact, our analysis indicates just the opposite–that the limited protections provided in the previous permit were largely eliminated from the new permit.

Fact Check type inseert will have more discussion about the complexity introduced by the new permit. But BuckheadView believes Buckhead should take this as a warning signal of things to come—as Midtown continues to grow and DWM continues to discharge larger volumes of sewage into the creeks of Buckhead.

Fact Check type inseert rates Macrina’s statements as FALSE.

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