Monday, April 02, 2007

Written on 4/2/07

EPD Grants Permit for Discharge into Barber Creek

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has granted a permit to Oconee County to begin discharging 1 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into Barber Creek.

As expected, the EPD made its decision on narrow technical grounds. Now the Oconee County Board of Commissioners must decide whether to build the Rocky Branch sewage plant for which the permit was issued.

The Commissioners can make a decision to address some of the key concerns citizens voiced about the plant. The Commissioners can decide to treat the water to a higher standard so that people can come into skin contact with it without danger. They also can agree to restrict the discharge into Barber Creek to times when it will not contribute to flooding.

It is pretty clear that the concerns raised by citizens did have impact on the EPD. First, it agreed to hold a hearing on December 12, 2006, after more then 60 of us requested that it do so.

Second, it announced its decision on March 30, or three and a half months after the hearing. County officials indicated they expected to get the permit four to six weeks after the hearing.

Third, the EPD stipulated that the County must discharge the treated wastewater directly into Barber Creek, which is about a mile from the plant site, rather into the small, unnamed tributary that flows along the back of the property line of the plant site.

In an email message to me on September 6, 2006, Assistant Utility Department Director Chris Thomas said: “The discharge will be into the feeder creek.” He copied the memo to Director Gary Dodd.

The EPD did not address one of the objections the Friends of Barber Creek raised about the application procedure. We provided the EPD with the advertisements the County used for its public hearing back in March of 2006. The County did not even identify the receiving stream (Barber Creek) for the treated sewage water discharge.

In addition, the EPD did not fully address the issue of the fecal coliform standard. The EPD said Barber Creek is not listed as an impaired stream by the state. But the data the County itself presented at the hearing, as well as data collected by others, indicate the stream has violated state standards for fecal coliform on more than one occasion in the past.

We also asked the EPD to conduct independent sampling of Barber Creek below the plant at least once every three months. “Due to resource constraints, the frequency of these sampling events cannot be as frequent as once every three months,” the EPD said in the documentation it provided explaining it decision. In other words, the EPD doesn’t have the resources to do its job.

The document justifying the decision also had some interesting observations about the difference between drinking water and the water that will come out of the treatment plant.

It confirmed that those who use the treated sewage water must post signs and use other means to inform the public that the water is coming from a sewage plant and that one should not drink the water or come into contact with it.

It also said that treating the water to “drinking water quality” would not be a good thing to do because drinking water contains chlorine and would be “toxic to small aquatic organisms in the creek.”

At the hearing on December 12, EPD officials acknowledged, however, that Gwinnett County is treating its sewage plant effluent to a standard that is higher than what Oconee County is being required to do because that Gwinnett water is going into Lake Lanier, where people swim and from which drinking water is drawn.

Oconee County could be required–or could agree on its own–to meet that standard.

I’ll be talking with legal advisers about whether we can force the EPD to reconsider its decision.

In the meantime, the spotlight is on the Board of Commissioners. We’ll need to do everything we can to keep it there.

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