Monday, November 20, 2006

Written 11/20/06

Public Notices Hard to Decode

The November 9, 2006, issue of The Oconee Enterprise contains a Public Notice about a request for a permit for a stream buffer variance on protected state waters that feed into Barber Creek.

It is unlikely that anyone who saw the notice would have understood that this was the issue. The Public Notice does not use the words "variance" or give a clear indication that what is being proposed is an encroachment of the buffer the state has set up to protect state waters.

Because the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest in Atlanta gets all notices of stream buffer variance requests, recognized that it involved Barber Creek, and knew of the existence of Friends of Barber Creek, Center staff informed me of the request. Through the efforts of the Center, I have obtained the actual variance request.

From what I can tell, this is a very minor matter that actually can help Barber Creek, rather than harm it. Georgia Club Estates, an 81-acre residential development project located on Barber Creek Road in Oconee County, wants to modify dams on two farm ponds on the property. At present, the ponds have spillways but no other drainage systems. Because the ponds are spring-fed, they have been designated state waters. To modify the dams, the developer will have to enter the existing 25-foot buffer around these waters. Thus, the developer needs a buffer variance permit.

The construction could help Barber Creek because the dams are old and this construction could improve them and decrease the chances of erosion.

The problem is that everyone who might be affected should have a chance to know what is being proposed and its consequences. That means all of us concerned about Barber Creek.

Fortner Construction Inc. of Loganville, which submitted the application, was told it had to post a legal notice that provided "A description of the proposed buffer encroachment." Here is what the public notice said:

Public Notice

The proposed Barber Creek Road project involves the installation of outlet structures in two ponds. Proposed impacts to the 25-foot buffers associated with these dams include 2,807 square feet (64.32 linear feet) and 1,535 square feet (32.33 linear feet) of the 25-foot buffers adjacent to the open waters. The property is located northeast of the intersection of Barber Creek Road and State Road 53.

If you can get any sense of what is being proposed by that description, you are way ahead of me.

I will write to the EPD and ask that they require another legal notice. If you know of others who needs to know about this request for a buffer variance, please let them know.

This is not the first time we have seen this problem of public notices that don't give needed information. Oconee County ran two public notices about the March 14, 2006, public hearing on its request to get a permit to begin discharging treated sewage water into Barber Creek. Neither one mentioned Barber Creek!

I have notified the EPD of this problem and will do so again at the public hearing we have been granted before the EPD at 7 p.m. on December 12. That meeting will be at the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road. Please plan to attend.

If you are someone who did not know that the County planned to dump treated sewage water into Barber Creek until after that March 14 hearing, please speak up at that hearing. If you know others in that position, please have them attend and speak up as well.

We're lining up speakers for that hearing, so please let me know if you can speak to this point or others regarding the Oconee County permit request.

If you are willing to write to the EPD to reinforce my point that the notice about the buffer variance request by Fortner Construction is not adequate to inform the public about the issue at hand, please let me know and I'll provide you with the details on how to write.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Written 11/14/06

Oconee Sewage Plants Sometimes Fail

Oconee County has had at least five malfunctions or other problems with its two sewage treatment plants since February of 2003 that were serious enough to require notification of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

In one case, involving the Calls Creek plant in Watkinsville, the problem caused die offs in the creek and strong chemical odors. In another case, at the county’s only other sewage treatment plant, on Rocky Branch road, standing sewage was removed from a ditch leading to a creek that feeds to Barber Creek, but 200-300 gallons of sewage may have entered the creek before the sewage was removed from the ditch.

Evidence of these problems comes for an examination of the notices the county files with the EPD as required by law when it has a problem with operation of its plants. The EPD granted me access to those records after I filed an open records request.

For the most part, the five problems resulted from routine failures at plants that process sewage. The amount of contamination was relatively small. The cases illustrate, nonetheless, a simple point. Sewage treatment plants sometimes fail.

Vickie Yarbrough, environmental specialist with the EPD working out of its Northeast District Office in Athens, said she has found Oconee County to be "highly compliant" with EPD regulations. She has responsibility for monitoring the records provided to her by Oconee County as required by its EPD permits.

Oconee County has asked for a permit to expand its Rocky Branch plant from 0.4 million gallons per day (MGD) to 1.0 MGD. At present, the County does not have a permit to discharge water from Rocky Branch into any stream. The treated water is sprayed on hay fields at the facility.

The County wants to discontinue operation of its current system, called a Land Application System (LAS), and begin treating wastewater via a membrane filter system. The treated wastewater will be sprayed on the fields, sold to reuse customers, or discharged into Barber Creek. The permit being sought would allow the county to discharge the full amount into Barber Creek at any time. The County is most likely to actually discharge the full amount to Barber Creek in periods of heavy rain, when the spray fields will be saturated and when reuse customers don’t want any more water. Barber Creek at that time also is likely to be running full of water.

The draft permit spells out what the county must do if there is a malfunction at the plant. In essence, the County has to inform the EPD of the problem and indicate how it is going to fix it. The five reports filed by the County since 2003 illustrate the procedures.

According to one of those reports, the EPD met on March 11, 2004, with representatives of Watkinsville’s Ameripride Uniform Services to discuss evidence of elevated metals concentrations in the wastewater discharge from the Calls Creek plant. The details were in a letter of April 29, 2004, in the EPD files. Calls Creek in Watkinsville treats the discharges from Ameripride.

During February, June and November of 2003, according to the letter, the Calls Creek plant violated its discharge permit by causing "biological die offs" and producing "strong chemical odors."

On January 23, 2004, the Oconee County Utility Department sampled the Ameripride discharge, according to the letter, and test results indicated elevated levels of copper, lead and zinc.

The letter said Oconee County would receive approval from the EPD for a local pretreatment program to deal with the Ameripride discharge in the future.

The Ameripride case illustrates the added problems of treating waste from industrial sites. That is important because Oconee County earlier this year sought to lure a pharmaceutical manufacturer to the Orkin Tract on SR316 and US78 and has indicated it will continue to seek industrial manufacturers of this sort for the site.

Discharge from the sought-after pharmaceutical plant was to be directed to Rocky Branch for treatment. At present, the County has no plans in place for pretreatment of that waste, Chris Thomas, assistant director of the Utility Department, said in an email message to me this year. In fact, he said, at present the County doesn’t even have standards for treatment of industrial waste and relies on the EPD for such regulations.

The second documented problem with sewage treatment in the County occurred on July 2, 2004, when the County informed the EPD that it had experienced a sewer overflow at the Rocky Branch plant due to a "faulty air relief valve on the corner of Rocky Branch road and Malcolm Bridge road." Sewage entered a drainage ditch leading to a creek crossing under Rocky Branch road. An estimated 200-300 gallons of "sewage may have entered" the creek, according to the letter.

The manufacturer of the valve was asked to help determine the cause of the failure, the letter stated.

On March 9, 2005, the County informed the EPD that a sewer line repair on Calls Creek resulted "in leakage entering state waters." The estimated spill was 50 gallons. The problem was caused by erosion surrounding the concrete piers supporting the pipe.

On July 7, 2005, the County informed the EPD that the collection system for the Rocky Branch LAS "has experienced major infiltration due to the rainfall in excess of five inches" that occurred the night before. Three pump stations were underwater, though one continued to operate. The others were shut down until the water could be drained.

On February 14, 2005, the County reported a sewage spill in a pasture off SR316 near McNutt Creek road because of a blockage in the line. The county had to call in a pumper truck to suck up and remove the spillage. The County sampled waters in nearby Barber Creek above and below the site and found a small increase in colliform below the site.

Oconee County is not the only County planning to discharge wastewater in Barber Creek. Barrow County has received a permit to discharge up to 1.5 MGD of treated wastewater into Barber Creek several miles from where the Rocky Branch plant will make its discharge.

In addition, Oconee County has indicated it may eventually expand the Rocky Branch plant to 4.0 MGD of discharge, though it does not yet have a permit for that purpose. The County also is considering discharging from the Rocky Branch plant into the Apalachee. It has received Waste Load Allocations to discharge up to 2.0 MGD into the Apalachee, but it must obtain a permit before it can actually use the allocations.

The Rocky Branch plant is located on Rocky Branch road near the intersection with Hog Mountain road. The treatment plant is just behind the new high school.

The Calls Creek plant, in Watkinsville behind the Fire Station on SR15 near its intersection with US441, has a permit to discharge 0.67 MGD into Calls Creek.

The County is seeking to upgrade the Rocky Branch plant because it has promised sewage capacity to developers it does not currently have. According to a report by the Utility Department earlier this year, as of February 1, 2006, the county had commitments to treat 60,550 gallons per days of sewage beyond what its current plants can handle.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Written on 11/05/06

Candidate Forum a Success

The Candidate Forum on November 1 at the Oconee County Library was quite successful. More than 60 people showed up. The questions asked were excellent.

District 46 Georgia Senate candidates Bill Cowsert and Jane Kidd and District 113 Georgia House candidate Becky Vaughn spent more than two hours taking questions on topics such as education funding, preservation of the county’s natural resources, immigration, transportation and incentives given to businesses wishing to locate in the county.

After promising to either attend the Forum or send a representative, incumbent District 113 representative Bob Smith did neither. His son read an apology from Mr. Smith and then departed. The statement said Mr. Smith had a commitment to attend a meeting in Savannah.

I had spoken personally with Mr. Smith on October 12 when he failed to respond to my email message of October 9 inviting him and the other three candidates to the forum. Mr. Smith said he had received my email, but he had concerns about the open format. Yet he promised to attend the Forum or send a representative, and he said he hoped to attend in person. His campaign manager, Gabriel Sterling, raised additional questions about the format in a series of email messages in the next two weeks. The day before the Forum, Mr. Sterling relayed a message to me through a colleague that two hours was more than Mr. Smith was willing to commit, but he would attend.

In the apology for not attending read by his son, Mr. Smith said the Savannah meeting was of a legislative committee dealing with technical colleges in the state.

The Forum was organized by citizen groups Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Citizens for South Oconee County, Friends of Barber Creek, Friends of the Apalachee and Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth. Representatives of these five groups posed the first questions.

I’ve listed the question posed by Karen Kimbaris for Friends of Barber Creek below as well as the full responses of the candidates. Karen’s question dealt with the state Environment Protection Division, which is very important for our work.

I’ve also listed a question by Charlie Baugh of Citizens for Oconee’s Future. Charlie’s question dealt with House Bill 218, which the 2005 General Assembly voted on but did not pass. The Bill, roundly attacked by news media and citizen groups around the state, would have allowed governments, including ours in Oconee County, to make secret developmental deals. This is a particularly important issue for us because of County efforts to lure businesses to Oconee. The Orkin tract at SR316 and US78 has been marketed extensively by the state and the County, including this spring when a pharmaceutical company was courted. Only after the fact did we hear what kinds of promises were made. Included in them was a promise of sewage services. The discharge was targeted for Barber Creek!

I wish I could provide a transcript of all of the questions and responses. That would take much more time than I have. I hope these two questions and answers are helpful.

Please vote on Tuesday. As these two questions indicate, it really will make a difference who is elected to represent us at the General Assembly in Atlanta.

Question by Karen Kimbaris from Friends of Barber Creek: Our group has found it very important to work with the state Environmental Protection Division in our efforts to get the stormwater ordinance passed and also to get hearings on a permit to discharge to wastewater into Barber Creek. What can you do as a representative of our county to assist us in working with the Envirommental Protection Division.

Jane Kidd

Well, we can make sure they are responsive. And if that is a problem then that is something you would call a state Senator or a state Rep about and try to make sure that that is taken care of. I think of lot of it is an education process for the community and for all involved. The rivers are so important that to use any river for that kind of intensive wastewater treatment is a very sensitive issue and I think you need to be assured of the technical assistance to make it work well or you need to look at other options and other locations for the wastewater treatment. It is very expensive and costly enterprise but it usually is handled with bonds and that is an option you have to look at and make sure it is done the way you need it to be. And complain. A lot of people don’t complain enough. I know you all have done it at lot and rightly so. I applaud your group for being as active as you have been and showing up at the meetings. Every T needs to be crossed and ever I dotted before you sign on to a plan that is potentially going to leave a river very dirty and maybe irreparable.

Bill Cowsert

I don’t really think from the state legislature level you can micro manage the EPD. There may be certain rules or regulations or laws that we have to pass that they have to live by. I think part of it is your priorities. That is really reflected as much in funding as anything. I don’t believe the EPD has been adequately funded. If you are sitting there voting on the budget and allocation of the resources, we need to fund the EPD so they can do their job and let those experts do their job. We have some very qualified people there that would like to enforce better than they are able to but they just don’t have the resources to do it. You learn when you sit at these forums. This is the sixth or seventh we have sat at. We have heard a lot of these questions before. But you learn a lot from other people’s answers and from the questions. One thing I picked up on last week is that there are certain impact fees paid by the developers that is dedicated to environment protection but doesn’t necessarily get there in the budget. That is something I would like to see and plan to do in the Senate. Let’s make sure that these funds, like trust funds we set aside, go to the EPD, in the case of your question.

Becky Vaughn

I very much agree with Bill on several things. It bothers me in the state legislature and I’ve seen it happen a lot that we pass these laws about what you can and can’t do and it sounds great. Especially when you go back home and you say I supported this and I supported that. But then they don’t fund the enforcement. So it looks good on the books but if there is nobody there to follow up then it might as well not have been passed. I learned a lot about the problems that the EPD in my work in as head of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. As many of you know, methamphetamine has gotten to be a huge issue in this state and obviously impacted a lot of the work I do. But it has become a serious environmental problem. They are being called constantly about cleanup and this kind of stuff. They don’t have the workforce they need to do what you are talking about much less jump into a new area. And we have kind of a history of doing that. In education we said what the schools can do and what the schools can’t do and yet we don’t fund the mechanism to make that happen. There are some dynamite, dedicated people at EPD. I mean just very dedicated to what they do but they cannot get to everything they know is out there and it is very frustrating to them too. I cannot micro manage EPD but I do think one of the roles of your representative and your senator is if you are having trouble getting a response as Jane said you do call them and say this is supposed to happen and I cannot get people to response. It is a time sensitive issue. You cannot file a complaint and they get around to it 18 months later. That goes along with the urgency. If we are going say that this is part of the state and say that these are the rules then you’ve got to fund the enforcement or quit and go home.

Question by Charlie Baugh, Citizens for Oconee’s Future: Last year there was a bill introduced in the House, House Bill 218, that would have allowed secret negotiations for development opportunities at the local level. It would have allowed totally secret negotiations to occur to the point of a deal being made before citizens would have had input. I would like to know how you would vote if that comes up again in the future.

Jane Kidd

I voted against 218...I always side on the need for the public to know especially when it is public money and private citizen’s money being spent. 218 went too far and shielded the information way too long and the deal was actually going to be done before the information was disclosed to the public and that was too far and too closed so I would not vote for it again...

Bill Cowsert

I think we need to reach a consensus as a community, as a state, as to what type of incentives we are willing to give to induce businesses to locate here. That is really what 218 was about when the state is offering incentive packages to industries to try to induce them to locate in the state of Georgia...As a general philosophy I believe in open government...In this particular area there has to be some level of privacy or you are tying your hands behind your back to be able to negotiate at all...We will never win in these competition unless we have some level of secrecy...

Becky Vaughn

I would have voted against that bill. It went absolutely too far in terms of keeping from public disclosure things likes records, agreements, impact assessments, those types of things...There is a fine line there, but when you look at other states, the ones that are willing to take it far down the line and keep things secret are ones that don’t have a lot to attract business and so they are trying to play the game this way in terms of making those types of offers...My standard answer is: masks are for Halloween, they are not for government.

Bob Smith voted for HB 218.