New Pressure on Atlanta to Do Something
About Wastewater Operations

June 21, 1999

Big Creek treatment plant is about to tank out

Development ban is a possibility in thriving corridor

Timothy Bower   Contributing Writer

Six years of rapid growth in the Georgia 400 corridor now threatens to come to a halt as Fulton County officials predict the Big Creek wastewater treatment plant will run out of room by 2001.

The possibility of a development moratorium in the western corridor exists, said Fulton County Commission Chairman Mike Kenn. "It's being evaluated on a a daily basis."

Kenn said permitting activity has stepped up significantly in the face of a possible development shutdown.

"On the Big Creek side, there's been a marked increase. Everybody's trying to get in under the looming moratorium," he said. "It has basically sped up the permitting process. What normally might have transpired over a two-year period may evolve in half that time."

But Gordon Buchmiller, a partner in Atlanta-based commercial developer Childress Klein Properties, attributed the increased activity to increased demand.

"There's just a big demand for commercial space," he said. "If we aren't able to address that demand, there's the potential there for a significant slowdown to the economy."

More development puts more pressure on the Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

Big Creek has a Georgia Environmental Protection Division permit to handle up to 24 million gallons per day of wastewater for any month-long period, said Fulton County Public Works Director Terry L. Todd.

Average monthly flows at the plant hit 23.44 million gallons per day in April 1998. The facility was averaging about 18.7 million gallons per day for the 13 months between April 1998 and April 1999. Todd said with current development rates, he expects to get, perhaps, about 18 more months out of the plant.

"What we're looking at is sometime near year-end 2000 is going to be a critical time frame," he said.

A pipe diverting sewage from the overworked Johns Creek Water Pollution Control Plant to the Big Creek will be completed by the end of 2000, he said.

The county plans to shunt off 2 million to 3 million gallons a day from the Johns Creek plant, which exceeded its capacity of 7 million gallons a day nine times between April 1998 and April 1999, Todd said.

The county was fined $1,500 each time there was an overrun. The highest monthly average was in April 1998 at 9.75 million gallons a day.

The overruns prompted a development moratorium in the 35-square-mile Johns Creek basin, which is in effect through next summer.

Basin developers worry

Overruns also have prompted concern for Johns Creek basin developers such as Duluth-based Technology Park/Atlanta Inc., which is developing the 1,800-acre Johns Creek business park.

Before the moratorium took effect in January, Technology Park leaders were able to obtain permits for several projects on the table, said Rick O'Brien, president of the company. The Johns Creek park also is uniquely situated with about a third of it outside the moratorium zone, in Forsyth County, so development can continue in that section.

Fulton's commissioners enacted the moratorium with plans to re-evaluate sewer capacity issues at the end of the 18-month period.

If the moratorium is extended, it could create a serious setback for the company, so Technology Park executives have been examining some options.

"We are exploring a small treatment plant within our complex," O'Brien said. "I believe it could be five years, at least, before Fulton County can get caught up and be able to comfortably issue permits."

Technology Park's treatment facility would help bridge that gap.

Fulton squeezes use of plants

Fulton officials also estimate it realistically would take five years to increase capacity at the Big Creek plant. In the meantime, they have taken steps to squeeze every bit of use possible out of existing facilities.

About two years ago, crews set out to make the system storm water-tight so water that need not be treated cannot flow into the treatment plant.

There are two main areas of storm water infiltration, explained Ed Clark, chairman of the board of environmental engineering consultant Jordan, Jones and Goulding Inc., the Atlanta company Fulton County hired to help with its wastewater issues.

One is to correct all the places where large volumes of storm water enter the system, such as when someone's gutters incorrectly flow into the sanitary sewer. Another is repairing smaller leaks such as those that form around a manhole cover.

Clark said workers found and corrected significant inflows into the system, but added that no one will know just how successful the effort has been until an extended stretch of wet weather hits metro Atlanta.

Attacking from a different angle, Nancy Leathers, director of Fulton's Environment and Community Development Department, was busy in late spring hammering out an agreement with the cities of Alpharetta and Roswell. Both cities use the Big Creek plant.

The agreement would limit development in the Big Creek service area to a fixed quantity during a specific period of time.

Chamber hires consultant

"What we're really looking at is stretching out the time period so that we don't use the capacity and then have no development at all in the basin," Leathers said.

The development industry is throwing its hat in the ring as well, said John Dorris, president of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce in Roswell.

The area in question is, by far, the fastest-growing section of Fulton County, he said.

A moratorium would shut down new construction, but it also would prevent existing companies in the basin from expanding their operations, he said.

To help, the chamber hired its own engineering consultant to work on the problem.

"It's not something we fear the county could not handle on its own, but in an effort to aid them in finding a solution to this problem, we hired [the consultant]," Dorris said.

  Related Backaground Story

By Julie B. Hairston, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Hundreds of millions of dollars in Buckhead-area development could be delayed or halted by a new agreement among city, state and federal officials to clean up the city's ongoing wastewater problems.

The consent decree won't take effect until it is approved by the Atlanta City Council and a federal judge, actions that could take three or four months.

But the city has established a more rigorous standard for approving development in some of the city's hottest real estate markets. The city now requires a private expert to determine that new development won't overwhelm the city's sewer lines--a situation federal authorities say already exists in Atlanta's northeast sector.

"We have agreed to not add where we don't have capacity," said Larry Wallace, Atlanta's chief operating officer.

Failure to live up to the agreement could result in a six-month moratorium on new sewer hook-ups--completely shutting off new development.

Projects hanging on the new standard include the proposed mixed-use development around the Lindbergh MARTA station and a 375,000-square-foot office development near Phipps Plaza.

A study commissioned by the city in 1995 concluded that lines in those areas were significantly overburdened. The consultant that conducted the study later told city officials that the findings were misinterpreted, and Wallace dismissed the conclusions as "a mistake in a report."

But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials found evidence of overburdened sewers in the same area during a 1997 inspection of more than 22 miles of city lines.

"I'm very anxious to see more about this sewer capacity certification process and whether it will mean in practicality a change in how things are done," said Councilman Lee Morris, who represents Buckhead. "The hope of the community is that the EPA will continue to take an active part in seeing to it that things are done right, because many of them lost that faith in the city a long time ago."

Morris has advocated slowing the pace of development in Buckhead, a position shared by many of the community's neighborhood associations.

Councilwoman Clair Muller, who heads the council's Utilities Committee, said she found a lot to like about the new agreement, which sets out deadlines for improvements and stepped-up monitoring of conditions in the city's sewer system.

"I hope it has teeth," she said.

The agreement will take an immediate $700,000 bite in fines for pollution from overflowing manholes and cracked sewer pipes. It threatens severe penalties if the city fails to live up to the remedies spelled out in the 150-page document.

Among other potential penalties, the city will have to pay $35,000 and risk a six-month ban on all sewer hook-ups if it approves a sewer permit for a line that does not have sufficient capacity. The city also will have to pay $1,500 for every reported sewage spill resulting from "inadequate management, operation and maintenance" of the city's system.

Wallace said the city has begun to carry out many of the programs in the agreement. He argued that improvements in the lines along Nancy Creek and both forks of Peachtree Creek have created enough capacity to support continued development in Buckhead.

"We're putting pennies in the bank right now and have been for a year," Wallace said.

Chuck Konas, senior project manager for Carter & Associates, developer of the Lindbergh MARTA project, said his firm just received the results of its sewer-line analysis. The data, he said, shows the line that would serve the project lacks sufficient capacity, but the company is committed to paying to bring the line up to EPA specifications.

"Our initial analysis is no, there's not" enough capacity, Konas said, "but we're not done analyzing the information yet. We recognize that improvements need to be made."

Konas said the agreement is likely to have a greater impact on small developments, where profit margins are less flexible.

The vice-president of a real estate company that owns a key piece of Buckhead property said he does not expect the agreement to affect his plans or deter the current push for intown development.

"It is a property-by-property issue," said Dan Steinberg, vice-president of BRE/Atlanta LLC, which owns a corner at Peachtree and Piedmont roads. "It depends on where the city has completed improvements."

City officials hope to gain approval from the full council July 6. The agreement probably will be approved by U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash, the final step in the process, in the late summer or early fall, according to Wallace.

The consent decree results from a 1995 lawsuit against the city by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The suit successfully challenged the adequacy of treatment at overflow facilities for combined sanitary and stormwater sewers.

But Thrash ordered the city to continue negotiations with federal and state environmental agencies on the city's other long-standing wastewater problems.