Sunday, December 10, 2006

Written 12/10/2006

To Fix Barber Creek, Add Some Treated Sewage Water

Barber Creek is so dirty that even treated sewage water cannot hurt it, Oconee County officials have been saying for the last two years.

In fact, according to those officials, a little treated sewage water would do the Creek some good.

The story, as it turns out, is more complicated than that.

Little is known about the quality of water in Barber Creek, largely because the Georgia Environmental Protection Division does not take into consideration the actual quality of the water in a stream in making its decision about the ability of the stream to handle sewage plant discharge!

In fact, the state of Georgia has not studied Barber Creek and has only general notions about how clean or dirty Barber Creek is where Oconee County plans to discharge 1.0 million gallons per day of sewage water from its Rocky Branch plant.

The state made its decision about waste load allocations–the preliminary and controlling decision in drafting a permit to discharge into Barber Creek–without even gathering data on the quality of water in the stream or requiring Oconee County to submit data of that sort.

The EPD used maps and descriptive data on the Creek’s size and volume of flow to estimate, based on theoretical models, how much dirty water the Creek can handle.

Then the EPD told Oconee County that Barber Creek could handle more pollutants–based on those theoretical models, not on a knowledge of how dirty or clean the Creek actually was.

The EPD informed Oconee County it had to design a plant that would produce discharge that would not exceed set standards for 10 characteristics: flow, biochemical oxygen demand, ammonia, dissolved oxygen, total suspended solids, total residual chlorine, fecal coliform bacteria, pH, total phosphorus, and turbidity.

Oconee County has designed its planned expanded sewage treatment plant on Rocky Branch road with these requirements in mind, and the EPD has issued a draft permit for the County.

Citizens will get a chance to ask questions about that draft permit in a meeting scheduled by the EPD for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 12, 2006, at the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain road.

Citizens can ask what the state really knows about the quality of water in Barber Creek and why it believes it can handle reuse quality water–also called grey water–from a sewage plant.

Citizens also can ask the state to begin taking action to actually clean up the Creek if the Creek is as dirty as Oconee County officials say it is.

Paul Lamarre, an expert on the modeling the EPD uses to make the decisions about sewage plant discharges, was kind enough to explain the process to me in detail in two different telephone conversations I had with him the week of November 27, 2006. He also referred me to documents on the models used to make the allocation.

The modeling process, he emphasized, involved "no raw data" based on samples of water taken from Barber Creek.

Mr. Lamarre said he expects to attend the hearing the EPD has scheduled for December 12.

Even if Barber Creek is as dirty as County officials claim, part of the logic of the argument that a little more dirty water will do it some good is wrong, according to the information Mr. Lamarre gave to me.

A big focus in the waste load allocation decision, he said, is the theoretical amount of dissolved oxygen in a stream. Dissolved oxygen, up to a point, is good, since the bacteria in a stream that break down biodegradable materials that enter the stream require oxygen to do their work.

Water coming out of a sewage plant usually is high in dissolved oxygen, since part of the treatment process involves stirring the water. Oxygen is dissolved in the water through contact with the air.

The amount of oxygen in a stream also is affected by temperature, and a slow-moving stream low in volume in warm weather would benefit from the addition of water high in oxygen. But a colder stream, which holds more oxygen naturally, with a higher volume isn’t as likely to gain as much from the addition of water high in dissolved oxygen.

Yet Oconee County officials have been clear in saying they plan to discharge into Barber Creek from the Rocky Branch plant when they cannot sell the reuse water for irrigation. They won’t put the water in the Creek when it might do some good, in other words, but only when the Creek isn’t like to benefit much from the additional dissolved oxygen.

The other contaminants that are in sewage water–such as fecal coliform and ammonia–will only add to the amount of contaminants in the stream. Because of the increased volume, these contaminants will be diluted.

The County actually began the process that will come to a head with a decision on a discharge permit in September of 2004 when it asked the EPD for a Waste Load Allocation for Barber Creek. It was granted the allocation in August of 2005. Since that time, it has gone forward with the permitting process, filling out forms and submitting information about the plant.

The County, however, has not provided the state with data on the quality of water in Barber Creek in applying for the Waste Load Allocation or in any of the documents released to the public prior to a March 14 hearing.

The assertion that Barber Creek is currently so dirty comes from sampling data included in separate report produced by consulting firm Jordan Jones and Goulding in September of 2005.

At the hearing the County held on March 14, 2006, officials made reference to the data from those samplings and the characteristics of effluent from the County’s only other sewage treatment plant, now operating on Calls Creek. The Rocky Branch plant will be similar to the Calls Creek plant in design.

The charts showed that Total Suspended Solids and Fecal Coliform levels were higher in Barber Creek than in the effluent from the Calls Creek plant.

Chris Thomas, assistant director of the Oconee County Utility Department, acknowledged that there is a lot of variation in samplings from Barber Creek. "It’s your discretion as to whether your children play in the Creek," he said. "I was born and raised in Oconee County. I played in creeks my whole life. Getting in them now, I kind of think twice about it because I see samples like that."

Wayne Provost, long-time County official and planner, told those at the hearing that the new treatment plant would allow the County to put water back into Barber Creek that "would be a better quality of water than what’s in Barber Creek upstream from the facility."

Jimmy Parker, senior project manager at Precision Planning Inc., another consulting firm aiding the County, pointed to a jar of water from Barber Creek and a jar of water from the treatment plant. "I mean, it’s crystal clear," he said of the latter.

Even if it is true that Barber Creek is now polluted–and it would be a surprise if it were not given that it now flows through so much urban sprawl in the County--the addition of "crystal clear" water won’t help the kids playing in the Creek unless the County changes its plans.
Kids don’t play in the Creek when the water is cold, but that is when the County plans to discharge its treated effluent.

When the Creek is low and hot and flowing slowly, the "crystal clear" water is going to be used on spray fields and for irrigation of lawns and recreation facilities.

It is just another part of the confusing story surrounding the County’s plans for sewage treatment and discharge into Barber Creek.