Atlanta’s sewer penalties show small room for error in managing sewer systemAtlanta is to pay a $6,000 penalty for discharging partially treated sewage from the Clear Creek facility because an operator didn't arrive in time to prepare for an afternoon rainstorm. This photo shows the facility during construction in 2009. Credit: carterstructures.com
By David Pendered
Atlanta is slated to pay a penalty of $46,500 for violating its duty to properly manage its sewer system; the violations illustrate the narrow margin of error in the management of the sewer system that’s stipulated in the federal consent decree.
The fines result from a total of five violations that occurred in July and August, according to legislation the Atlanta City Council is slated to approve at its meeting Monday. The sponsor is Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, who chairs the council’s Utilities Committee.
The tight restrictions are part of the settlement Atlanta reached in July 1998 of a lawsuit brought against the city by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a citizen downstream, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
Rainstorms contributed to some of the violations, according to the legislation. Human error accounted for others.
Here is a description of one infraction that represents the type of error involved in the penalties. The legislation provides the following account.
On July 2, divers were repairing equipment in the West Area tunnel pumping station to prevent equipment failure and restore operational capacity. The operator who was on the job to ensure the proper amount of water was in the tunnel, to protect the divers, was also assigned to the Clear Creek Combined Sewage Control Facility, near Piedmont Park.
The operator noticed the afternoon forecast showed the chance of a thunderstorm had reached more than 40 percent. The operator left the West Area Water Quality Control Facility to drive to the Clear Creek facility and prepare it for the possible rainstorm.
The storm happened before the operator arrived at Clear Creek. When the operator arrived, the facility had been discharging partially treated sewage for about five minutes. Sewage had been screened for large pieces of debris, but the sewage had not been disinfected to meet the terms of the federal consent decree that controls the city’s management of the sewer system.
The penalty for this violation was $6,000, according to the legislation.
One interesting twist to the story is that this type of repair to the tunnel pumping station was envisioned in a performance audit titled, Combined Sewer Overflow Consent Decree Impact. The audit was released in January 2014 by city Auditor Leslie Ward.
The audit determined the city had made great strides to improve its sewer system, in compliance with the consent decree. However, the upgrades came at the expense of maintenance of existing facilities.
According to the audit:
- “The department has accumulated $25 [million to] $36 million in deferred maintenance on the combined sewer facilities, while spending an average of about $2.3 million per year for maintenance of the facilities from fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2014. A consultant assessment of the facilities conducted in December 2011 and January 2012 identified numerous problems including leaking chemical tanks and broken equipment. We observed similar conditions in September 2013. Two of three violations of the fecal coliform bacteria standard in 2012 resulted from broken equipment.”
The new penalties are to be paid to the U.S. Treasurer. They are stipulated penalties imposed at the discretion of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, according to the legislation.
The payment is to be made as the city prepares to put a referendum on the Super Tuesday ballot, on March 1.
Atlanta voters are to be asked if they want to extend a 1 percent sales tax collected in Atlanta. Proceeds help pay for upgrades to the sewer system. Without the Municipal Option Sales Tax, the city’s water rates would be perhaps a third higher than today, according to comments made during the most recent campaign to extend the MOST.