Friday, December 29, 2006

Written 12/29/2006 (Updated 1/14/2007)

Details of Friends' Challenge to EPD Draft Permit

The Board of Directors of the Friends of Barber Creek, in documents submitted at the December 12 hearing before the Environment Protection Division and afterwards, has asked the EPD to deny Oconee County’s request for a permit to discharge wastewater into Barber Creek from an expanded Rocky Branch waste treatment facility.

The board made the request because it believes the County and the EPD incorrectly identified the receiving stream for the effluent, because it believes the County did not correctly post public notice about a hearing it held on the permit application in March of 2006, and because it believes Barber Creek already violates one state standard for water quality.

All three of these issues were raised by speakers at the public hearing at the Oconee County Civic Center on December 12. Reporters for the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Enterprise did not include them in their stories on the meeting. The Oconee Leader did.

I gave reporters for all three papers copies of documents that support the Board’s position on the issued raised. (These documents are available on the Friends of Barber Creek web site,

Included in the documents I gave the reporters were copies of an e-mail exchange between me and Chris Thomas, assistant director of the Oconee County Utility Department, stating that the County planned to discharge wastewater from the Rocky Branch plant into an unnamed tributary of Barber Creek, although the County had sought permission from the state to discharge directly into Barber Creek.

I also gave the reporters copies of the notices published by law in The Enterprise for the March 14 hearing. Neither of the notices published named the receiving waters for the discharge.

Allan Antley, the first of the speakers at the December 12 hearing, told the EPD that, based on data provided by the County, Barber Creek already exceeds the allowable level of fecal coliform bacteria and asked the EPD to deny the permit on that basis.

The e-mail exchange with Chris Thomas is unambiguous. It also was copied to Gary Dodd, director of the Utility Department. Here is what I asked Mr. Thomas on Tuesday, 9/5/2006:

"(F)rom the map (on the draft permit written by the EPD) and from other maps I have viewed, it appears to me that the discharge from the plant will not be directly to Barber Creek but rather to the unnamed tributary of Barber Creek on the northwest side of the property. Is this correct? Is this a flowing stream, or is it normally dry?"

Here is what Mr. Thomas said on Wednesday, 9/6/2006:

"The discharge will be into the feeder creek. The creek flows year round and actually has a very good existing flow."

The two public notices in The Enterprise also are clear, and, according to the County, these are the only two such notices that were published. One appeared on February 9, 2006, and the other on February 23, 2006. Neither of them makes any reference to Barber Creek or any stream.

The public simply was simply to provide input on the proposed upgrade to the Rock Branch Land Application System. The upgrade, according to the ads, "will allow for treatment of 1.0 million gallons per day (MGD) of wastewater to reuse quality standards." What will be done with the wastewater is not specified.

The fecal coliform standard is more complicated. On page 2 of the Fact Sheet attached to the draft permit handed out at the meeting, Water Quality Standards are listed. For the Months of May through October, fecal coliform is not to exceed an average of 200 fecal coliform units per 100 ml of water. For the months of November through April, fecal coliform cannot exceed 1,000 fecal coliform units per 100 ml.

The standard allows for some deviations for the 200 fecal coliform unit limit during the summer, "when contact recreation activities are expected to occur," but the standard says the deviation would have to be from non-human sources.

At the December 12 meeting, Oconee County officials presented a chart at the rear of the room showing that its samples from Barber Creek showed an average fecal coliform units of 219. No detail on the sampling dates or procedures was provided.

The County also presented this chart at the March 14 hearing. At that meeting, according to the official transcript, Mr. Thomas said some fecal coliform readings from Barber Creek have been as high as 512. The source for the data in the chart was the Watershed Protection Plan–Barber Creek and Calls Creek Watersheds, September 2005. The document was prepared by consulting firm Jordan Jones and Goulding (JJG).

Getting access to County data on the quality of water in Barber Creek has not been easy. On August of this year, I asked Mr. Thomas for data on Barber Creek in an email message. He responded the next day saying the County did not have sampling data from Barber Creek.

I filed an open records request with the County on December 19, 2006, asking for access to The Watershed Protection Plan–Barber Creek and Calls Creek Watersheds, prepared in September of 2005 for the County by JJG and for "any other documents or reports in possession of the County or its consultants containing information about the quality of water in Barber Creek or Calls Creek that have been produced since 2000."

On December 28, 2006, I reviewed the 2005 Watershed Protection Plan of JJG as well as a second report, also produced by JJG, called Final Report, February 2004, Watershed Assessment and Protection Plan Calls Creek and Barber Creek Watersheds.

Both documents contain tabled data showing fecal coliform counts for three sites on Barber Creek, all in Oconee County. According to both tables, the data come from May to November of 2000. The tables do not agree, however, and the 219 figure appears only in the 2005 report. The 219 figure is labeled as for the May to November period for one of the sites, with a reading of 572 for the "dry" months and 101 for the "wet" months. Another of the sites produced a reading of 337 for the May to November period.

The tables also contain data for Calls Creek, where the County currently operates a treatment plant. One of the readings for Calls Creek was 1,020!

In our filing with the EPD after the hearing, we also indicated that data gathered on May 1, 2002, by The Watershed Group at the University of Georgia as part of a City of Statham watershed assessment show three samples drawn from three different sites on Barber Creek in Barrow County with fecal coliform readings in excess of 500. Two of those samples were in excess of 1000.

We also argued that EPD has erred in not examining the condition of Barber Creek and the unnamed tributary to Barber Creek before issuing a Waste Load Allocation. Since Oconee County officials repeatedly have asserted that Barber Creek already is polluted, we wrote, it was inappropriate for the EPD to issue a Waste Load Allocation based solely on inferences about the quality of the water in the Creek from a theoretical model.

The Waste Load Allocation is the EPD's determination that a stream is capable of receiving polluted water.

In addition, we said, we fell the EPD has erred in not incorporating into the assessment of the application the adverse effects of the increase in volume of water in Barber Creek because of the Rocky Branch waste treatment plant. Barber Creek frequently floods, we noted, and any increase in water at flood stage will adversely affect the property of citizens downstream from the plant and increase the possibility of loss of life and injury.

Why the Banner-Herald and Enterprise stories ignored the specifics of the Friends of Barber Creek challenge to the County is an interesting question. The Oconee Leader has consistently provided the best coverage of this topic, though it, too, ignored the fecal coliform part of the challenge.

What we are saying is pretty simple. We think the County should have to tell people where the sewage water is going to be discharged in the public notice for a hearing on the topic. We think the application should correctly identify the stream, and we think the permit should as well. And we do not think a permit should be issued if Barber Creek already violates the state standard for water quality. We think water volume should be considered in making a decision.

The EPD will have to respond to the Friends filing, probably in January or February.

In the meantime, please refer anyone interested in the issues we raised to this posting and the Friends web site. It is pretty clear that we cannot depend on at least two of the newspapers to tell the story.