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Facing sewer discharge limit, Columbus seeks to change statewide water quality rule

David Pendered
Columbus, Chattahoochee Columbus has developed a 22-mile linear park along the Chattahoochee River that is popular with joggers, cyclists and pedestrians. Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

The City of Columbus’ water utility on Monday intends to ask the state to change statewide water quality rules in way that would delay, if not eliminate, a pending limit on the amount of sewage Columbus discharges into the Chattahoochee River.

Columbus, Chattahoochee

Columbus has developed a 22-mile linear park along the Chattahoochee River that is popular with joggers, cyclists and pedestrians. Credit: David Pendered

Columbus is resisting the state’s regulatory efforts to limit the amount of combined domestic sewage and stormwater runoff that’s discharged into the river from 11 outfall pipes. The city’s previous discharge permit expired in 2015 and has been administratively extended, records show.

On Monday, Columbus Water Works and its team of lawyers, from King & Spalding’s Atlanta office, are to present their new solution to resolve the dispute – at a meeting that has been specially called to handle this and another matter.

The Board of Natural Resources meeting is a virtual event, to start at 9 a.m. The meeting was not on the board’s annual calendar. It was specially called to authorize the sale of bonds approved in June by the state Legislature. The Columbus request was added to the  agenda.

Columbus’ proposal is for Georgia to create a new rule for setting the amount of pollution that is acceptable in a stretch of the Chattahoochee River near Columbus. Currently, the Total Daily Maximum Load is determined by the staff of the state Environmental Protection Division. EPD is part of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which is overseen by the Board of Natural Resources.

The Board of Natural Resources, not the staff, should have the final say in setting the total maximum daily load, according to the Columbus petition.

Columbus faces state-imposed limits on discharges from 11 outfall pipes that release a combination of domestic sewage and stormwater runoff into the Chattahoochee River. Credit: EPD, pending discharge permit

This shift would result in “better and fairer TMDLs,” according to the petition submitted on Columbus’ behalf by Lewis Jones and Patrick Runge, of King & Spalding:

  • “By requiring EPD to present its recommendations to this board, the rulemaking process provides the level of scrutiny that is appropriate for such consequential decisions. It also creates an opportunity for the board to ensure that proposed actions – including EPD’s allocation of pollution-reduction responsibilities that could result in some stakeholders, or sectors, bearing the lion’s share of costs, are consistent with board policies.
  • “This is necessary for political accountability and transparency.”

The governor appoints board members to seven-year terms and the state Senate must confirm the appointments, according to a provision of state law.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper opposes Columbus’ request for a rewrite of the statewide law solely to accommodate the city’s pending discharge limit, though the organization is still researching details of the request, Kevin Jeselnik, the riverkeeper’s general counsel, wrote Aug. 7 in an email response to a request for comment:

  • “While we are gathering information about the purpose and impacts of this petition for a rulemaking, we are very concerned about Columbus Water Works’ attempt to alter state-wide rules to delay issuance of the NPDES permit for its combined sewer system. It would not be appropriate for the Georgia Board of Natural Resources to affect every existing TMDL plan across Georgia in response to Columbus’ refusal to abide by reasonable and protective conditions in a single wastewater treatment permit.”

Historic signs along the Chattahoochee RiverWalk interpret past events, including nuggets about the Confederacy’s thwarted attempt to launch an armored warship from a shipyard in Columbus. Credit: David Pendered

This dispute isn’t about water quality, according to an April 21 letter from Columbus Water Works President Steve Davis to the state. The issue is about whether a limit on end-of-pipe discharges into the river is legal:

  • “We object to the proposed limit because it will expose CWW to liability for no purpose. The performance of our CSO facility is predetermined based on the design EPD approved before the facility was constructed. It is not a type of facility we can differently to meet new performance standards.”

Jeselnik recognized in a 2018 letter that the Columbus facility did meet the standards of its day – 1992. Times have changed, Jeselnick wrote in the letter:

  • “During the past 20 years there have been significant changes to this stretch of river. First, the character of the river itself is different, as we have seen significant improvements in water quality as entities like the City of Atlanta invested billions to upgrade its combined sewer and separate sewer treatment systems to reduce pollutant discharges into the river upstream of Columbus.
  • “Second, the improved water quality, dam removal, and highly successful white water course and RiverWalk promenade have all combined to change the way people use and enjoy the Chattahoochee River in Columbus. This beautiful stretch of the Chattahoochee River is heavily used for recreation….”
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David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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