The main streamgage station on Intrenchment Creek. (Photo by South River Watershed Alliance)

A federal agency is under pressure to restart a water pollution monitoring device it has kept shuttered for over seven months due to disputed safety concerns about the Atlanta public safety training center protests. Internal emails show USGS based the shutdown on speculative concern about “paid” protesters and declined a police officer of escorts.

Prior to the February shutdown, the data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) device informed a legal appeal of the Atlanta public safety training center and, according to local experts, compliance with a federal consent decree on sewage overflow limits. When SaportaReport first revealed the shutdown, USGS cited safety concerns about the “Cop City”/”Defend the Atlanta Forest” protests.

A DeKalb County commissioner and an environmental group – both also opponents of the training center plan – are pressing USGS to restart the “streamgage” device along DeKalb’s Intrenchment Creek, saying there is no danger and that volunteers currently do other water sampling regularly in its vicinity. 

“Currently, any safety issues, if in fact there were ever any, have been resolved or no longer exist,” said South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) board president Jacqueline Echols in a Sept. 15 email to a USGS official. “…The continued failure to deny the public access to the critical data that this site provides, with no indication or date certain when collection will resume, is unfairly burdensome and totally ignores the public interest.” DeKalb District 6 Commissioner Ted Terry forwarded the email to USGS this month and expressed similar concerns.

USGS says that it will reactivate the streamgage only when “qualified experts” tell them it’s safe. Internal emails obtained by SaportaReport show the shutdown came after a briefing from a DeKalb County Police Department (DKPD) SWAT team that apparently included some political spin, with “Defend the Atlanta Forest” activists described as “paid protesters.” However, the emails also say that USGS declined DKPD’s offer to continue operating the streamgage with police escorts.

“The safety and emotional wellbeing of USGS employees is always our first priority and will be the driver for any USGS decisions regarding this streamgage,” said the agency in a written statement.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not respond to questions about the streamgage shutdown and if it affects the City of Atlanta’s compliance with the sewage consent decree. The USGS emails show that the EPA questioned the City about the reason for the shutdown in May, two days after SaportaReport asked the federal agency about the issue. USGS and the City did not respond to questions about those conversations. 

USGS says it was unable to find another location for the streamgage and positioned itself as merely “providing a service” at the request of the City and County, adding that those governments are free to do their own water-quality monitoring in the area. The County could not immediately provide comment about that idea, and the City did not respond.

Sarah H. Ledford is a hydrologist and Georgia State University geosciences professor who uses streamgage data in her research, some of which is in collaboration with SWRA. She said the data from the Intrenchment Creek streamgage is irreplaceable and said the only safety concern with her own research is “harassment” from Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers in the area, which she cites as a reason water sampling there is done only by SWRA volunteers and not her students. 

“If that is what the USGS is saying (that there are safety concerns about protestors), they are not telling the truth,” said Ledford in an email. “If they are also concerned about harassment from APD, then they should be speaking directly with Mayor [Andre] Dickens to make this stop.”

A photo apparently showing a heavily armed police officer at the streamgage site on Intrenchment Creek during a Feb. 16 USGS visit that led to the shutdown of the water-pollution monitoring device. The photo was attached to an internal USGS email about the visit.

The USGS operates an extensive national network of streamgages with the fundamental purpose of monitoring the height and flow of streams and rivers. The devices include a tube with sensors that sit underwater, collecting data every 15 minutes and uploading it to a public website every hour.

The Intrenchment Creek streamgage and several others in the area are different in that they include pollution-monitoring devices as well. According to the SWRA, that is due to sewage-related consent decrees with both the City and the County, which help to pay for the stations. A key measurement is turbidity, or the cloudiness of the water, which Ledford said is an indirect way of assessing how much sediment is running off into the stream.

The streamgage in question – numbered by USGS as 02203700 – is below the Constitution Road bridge over the creek in DeKalb County. It is not on the training center site, which is on Key and Constitution roads, but rather about 500 feet to the east of its boundary and on the other side of Constitution.

On Feb. 16, USGS shut down the pollution-monitoring element of that streamgage without public notice. Other functions of the streamgage remain active, including the basic data about the level of the water.

SWRA and Ledford called the timing suspicious, as the shutdown came 10 days after Terry and others filed an appeal of the training center’s land-disturbance permit – which is still pending in court – that hinges on a claim of illegal sediment runoff. Regardless of the intent, the shutdown means a lack of new data about the construction. 

USGS previously said that the City and County – which it terms “cooperators” on the streamgage’s operations – were notified about the shutdown and “agreed” with it, though it remains unclear who specifically gave such agreement. Emails obtained by SaportaReport through a Freedom of Information Act request showed a spokesperson drafted a stronger response that was not sent: “At no time did either cooperator request the USGS to deactivate any component of this streamgage. This was purely a USGS decision.”

USGS cited protest-related safety concerns for the shutdown but did not clarify if those concerns were speculative or based on incidents. Some protesters in the area previously threw rocks or Molotov cocktails in the direction of utility workers in the area, according to police reports, and such civilian users as a remote-control airplane club fled DeKalb’s adjacent Intrenchment Creek Park after vandalism and personal conflicts with some activists. However, since the streamgage shutdown, a multi-agency police task has swept the area and DeKalb controversially shuttered the park, among other changes. Then again, some protests have continued, and a group has called for a mass march on the site in November.

A Feb. 16 email from Andrew E. Knaak, a metro Atlanta-based official with the USGS’s regional South Atlantic Water Science Center (SAWSC), explained the shutdown as based on speculative concerns following a briefing from a “14-member SWAT team” from DKPD and a site visit with what appears to be – based on attached photos – an escort from heavily armed and armored police officers. 

The body of a Feb. 16 email from USGS official Andrew E. Knaak to other officials about the streamgage and safety concerns.

Knaak’s description of the situation, emailed to several other USGS officials, appeared to be a version tilted against the protests. It dismisses protesters as “paid,” includes an off-handed reference to the enormously controversial state police killing of the protester known as Tortuguita without mentioning the death, and brands as a “riot” what even Dickens and APD called a largely peaceful Downtown march where some people committed vandalism and burned a police vehicle, resulting in domestic terrorism charges. The email refers to such domestic terrorism charges, which have since come under criticism as trumped-up, excessive or unlawful.

“Upstream of our site, there have been paid activists to disrupt/halt construction of [an] 80-acre mixed-use police training facility and environmental green space,” said Knaak in the email. “There have been camps located approx. 100 yards upstream from our site. Recently an activist was in a shoot-out with local authorities, the following weekend led to riots in downtown Atlanta… Activists are charged with domestic terrorism, we were told they make bail (paid in cash).”

On the other hand, the email also says DKPD “encouraged” USGS to continue its work if it wanted. DKPD did not respond to questions.

“Although we were encouraged to not stop operations because the Police Department is available for escort, I can’t help but think operating this station is a major safety concern, not just for us but also for law enforcement,” wrote Knaak.

“Who was doing the encouraging?” asked another USGS official in a reply.

“Good question,” replied Knaak. “What I was trying to say is the [police sergeant] told me that I shouldn’t feel like suspending operations is our only option because we can always rely on them to escort us.”

USGS did not give a specific answer as to why it declined the offer of police protection, instead calling the safety concerns “unique” and saying that SAWSC leadership “decided that having to work under these conditions placed an unacceptable burden on employees.” The decision came after two such police-escorted visits, the agency said. USGS also did not directly answer whether it consulted with anyone else about the nature of safety concerns, such as local media, elected officials or environmental groups.

The emails describe the water-pollution part of the streamgage as being immediately removed during the Feb. 16 site visit, pending further decisions. USGS says the immediate removal and shutdown was because the device quickly provides incorrect data or ceases to work without regular maintenance.

The emails show Knaak and other officials discussing the alternative of moving the streamgage elsewhere along the waterway. USGS said that failed because there is “not a suitable location” downstream before the creek converges with the South River. Going upstream nearby would be adjacent to the training center site, and going farther upstream “would not meet our cooperator’s monitoring objectives for this streamgage.”

According to Knaak’s email about the site visit, the County pays $31,700 a year for “discrete sampling” for the streamgage in a five-year agreement through 2025, and the City pays $53,800 a year in an annual agreement that includes “stage/discharge,” precipitation and sonde, which is part of the device.

The USGS emails obtained by SaportaReport include a May 10 message to Knaak from Patrick Woodall, an official at the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM). Woodall reported that an EPA official contacted DWM about the “Intrenchment Creek WQ [water-quality] station” and would be provided “basic info we discussed.” He added that he advised other officials to “send him your way for additional context RE suspension of operations at the site in question.”

DWM did not respond to questions about those discussions.

In response to previous SaportaReport questions in May, the emails show another SAWSC official suggested putting a note on the streamgage’s live-data webpage explaining the pollution data is “temporarily not in operation” due to the need for “safe” conditions. “Craft away on other language if this approach is considered a way to address questions the public may have,” wrote the official, Daniel L. Calhoun.

That never happened, and USGS would not explain why beyond saying it “typically” does not make such announcements.

Wide open is the question of whether the pollution monitoring will ever resume, given that some form of protest — in a movement already two years old — appears likely to continue as long as lawsuits and a referendum effort fail to halt construction.

“USGS leadership will continue to rely on safety and security guidance from qualified experts to determine if and when it’s safe to return to normal operations at this site,” the agency said in its written statement. “Until then, there are other options our cooperators could use to collect water quality information at Intrenchment Creek to meet any monitoring requirements they have.”

Holly Sarvis Weyers, the USGS’s Southeast regional director, made similar open-ended comments to the SWRA’s Echols in a Sept. 15 email. “The USGS continues to evaluate the situation, and no final decision has been made regarding reactivation of the water quality sensors or precipitation gauge,” she wrote.

“SRWA is requesting that you confer with Atlanta to determine if there are any ongoing safety concerns related to this site and require evidence that their claim is factual,” said Echols in her reply. “The data collected at this site are critical to our efforts to protect the creek, aquatic life and the South River and the organization is requesting immediate reactivation of the site.”

Terry also questioned the lack of metrics, saying in an email to USGS that he is “also concerned that this water quality site hasn’t been reactivated or another suitable site in this polluted watershed basin hasn’t been identified.” He offered to assist USGS, including with a site visit.

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