Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER/SPECIAL
By Arielle Kass, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Since mid-November, heavy rains that overwhelmed Fulton County’s sewage system caused more than 40 million gallons of untreated sewage to spill into waterways from Camp Creek to the Chattahoochee River.
There were six separate instances when more than a million gallons were spilled at a time. One 14 million gallon spill into Morning Creek in South Fulton in January was the worst spill statewide in at least five years, state officials said.
The recent spate represents a huge increase in sewage spills for the county since it entered a 2010 consent agreement with the state Environmental Protection Division to reduce water pollution. The county spilled just 392,000 gallons of raw sewage in 2016 and 690,000 in 2017; the totals for 2018 were just over 400,000 gallons until November, when the major spills began.
David Clark, Fulton’s director of public works, said before 2010, the county hadn’t been required to track spills to the level it is now, but he did not think they had ever been this bad.
“This was a very, very abnormal situation,” he said. “The trend has been down.”
Under the consent agreement with the EPD, the county has paid $157,450 in penalties for spills, and the total will rise with the latest failures, which represent continued violations that have harmed water quality and the environment, and will cost taxpayers more money as the county tracks water quality and pays more fines.
Fulton is not the only local government dealing with sewage overflows in recent months.
At the end of December, DeKalb County reported 25 sewer spills totaling more than 1 million gallons, and Cobb County had a spill along Nickajack Creek that lasted more than a week and spilled an estimated 13 million gallons. Fulton’s issues have drawn the attention of state regulators, and in February, the EPD’s watershed compliance manager sent a letter to county officials telling them they had violated the 2010 agreement and the state’s rules for water quality and control.
“Every spill is a big deal,” said Marzieh Shahbazaz, a compliance and enforcement program manager with the state environmental enforcement agency. “All these are huge.”
Most of the Fulton County spills have been caused by heavy rain that overwhelmed an aging system. The most significant breakdown occurred in south Fulton in January when the weight of saturated soil contributed to the collapse of a large sewer pipe in Union City. It forced the county to shut off sewage flow in that part of the system. With sewage unable to pass through the broken line, it backed up at the Morning Creek and White Water Creek pump stations, where a total of 19.5 million gallons went into the waterways in two different spills. Raw sewage spilled for more than half a day; while a bypass was added to the system, it will be more than two months before the pipe is completely replaced.
Communities downstream, including Clayton and Fayette counties, have felt the impact. The spill likely forced some communities to temporarily change the source of their drinking water, said Robert Kurbes, the manager for environmental health in the Fayette County Health Department.
“It’s very likely that they would adjust their raw water removal until the spill is remediated,” he said of Fayette County’s water system.
Fulton is in the midst of a $523.5 million upgrade to its water and sewer system that includes the inspection of more than 2,000 miles of pipe. Clark said once the system has been fully assessed, he expects there will be more projects planned to improve the system.
On the north side of the county, heavy rain led to spills in November, December, January and February that totaled more than 18 million gallons at Azalea Drive and Riverside Road near the Chattahoochee River.
Shahbazaz said the Azalea Drive area has been an issue for many years, but the recent totals are eye-popping.
“When we have a lot of rain, we see a lot of spills in that area,” she said. “…Forty million gallons plus in a short period of time? Even for Fulton County, that’s not normal.”
Clark said the northern spills — and 1.8 million gallons that spilled into Camp Creek, at Cochran Road — occurred when the waterways overflowed their banks, and river water entered the sewage system through manhole covers. The county has plans to raise its manhole covers to prevent similar problems in the future, but that work has not been completed. It is due to be finished this year.
At the Chattahoochee River, Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said sewer spills often mean elevated levels of E. coli bacteria, which could lead to rashes, eye and ear infections, gastrointestinal distress and other illnesses. He applauds the county’s recent efforts to reduce spills, but said there’s a long way to go.
“I wish these projects could have taken place a number of years ago, but I believe the county is taking these projects seriously,” he said. “It’s never a good thing for sewage to enter our natural environment.”
Bill Cox, the superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, said the spills would have been a bigger issue in the summer, when more people go to the river to swim, tube or fish. Now, he said, flows have been high and so fewer people have been exposed to the untreated sewage in the water.
Still, the spills mean the cost and effort to purify drinking water downstream increases, he said. And while spills have been a recurring issue, continued problems increase the river’s contamination.
“We need to make sure we’re keeping sewage in the sewage lines, and not in the river,” Cox said. “We’ve encouraged them over the years to address it, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take… We were told things would be squared away in 2017. It’s 2019, and we’re still having these events.”
The county has until the end of March to respond to the EPD’s violation letter, and Clark said he expects to have a reply ready next week. In an internal memo to Fulton County commissioners, Clark said his office plans to inspect about 19 miles of sewer pipes this year to identify any potential problems that could lead to failures or spills. Fulton County’s goal should be to keep spills to less than 500,000 gallons of sewage a year, Clark said.
The county is certain to face consequences from state regulators for the spills, including likely fines, according to Shahbazaz, the state regulator. Fulton will have to monitor the water quality on each of the eight rivers and creeks that had sewage spills for a year following each spill. Shahbazaz said some rivers recover quickly, particularly if there is a lot of rain to dilute the fecal matter, but others take longer.
“No one can correct it,” she said. “It’s just nature, by time.”