Atlanta Can't Get Wastewater Together
By Julie B. Hairston, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Federal environmental officials are promising strict enforcement of a consent order filed with U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Thursday.

Once signed by Thrash, the order will impose a $700,000 fine on the city of Atlanta for spills and leaks from its sewer system. Added to a $2.5 million fine levied in a related order signed last year, the fines amount to what the Environmental Protection Agency called "the largest Clean Water Act penalty ever assessed against a municipality."

The order also will require the city to carry out a rigorous program of improvements to its sewer pipes and treatment plants that will cost more than $1 billion during the next 14 years. Many of those improvements began three years ago under the dictates of a state law designed to bring the city's waste water treatment plants into compliance with federal environmental laws.

"We are very intent on seeing that the provisions get met," said John Hankinson, Region IV administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "I assume the city's intent is to meet it or they wouldn't be signing the consent order."

In May, the city launched a new procedure required by the consent order for issuing sewer permits that will slow the pace of development in the city, particularly in Buckhead. Depending on the amount of sewage flowing through pipes in the Peachtree Creek and Nancy Creek lines, the order could even halt development in areas that are served by those pipes.

"I understand there are some sewers (in Buckhead) that are carrying about all they can carry," said Harold Reheis, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Larry Wallace, the city's chief operating officer, said he expects little disruption in the city's development as a result of the order, however.

"We do not expect any slowdown in development as a result of the consent decree," Wallace said. "The process for approval will be different, but we expect to have sufficient city staff . . . to keep pace with the processing."

Meters to measure the amount of sewage flowing through Atlanta's sewer pipes have been installed in almost every area of the city, according to Wallace. The data from those meters will become an integral part of the new process for sewer permits.

"So far, the city has used monitoring in a rather selective way," said Bill Weinischke, senior attorney with the environmental enforcement section of the U.S. Department of Justice. "This (consent order) is going to require that they monitor flows all over the city. Before (the city) allows new flows, it will either have to increase capacity or reduce the amount of flow before it makes the (new sewer) connection."

Everyone said this should be the final part of a process spanning most of the past decade as Atlanta struggled to bring its aging infrastructure into compliance with increasingly stringent environmental requirements.

"This is intended to provide a comprehensive structure for decision making and solutions for our aged waste water system," Wallace said. "This is the place we've been trying to get to for a long time."

The Atlanta City Council already has approved the agreement. Once the provisions of the consent order have been advertised in the Federal Register, the public will have 30 days to comment on the proposed requirements. Then the order will take force after Thrash signs it.