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.

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