Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Calls Creek Sewer Plant Problems Lead To Resignation Of Two Oconee County Utility Department Employees

Solids In Effluent

A month-long investigation of effluent from the county’s Calls Creek sewage plant outside Watkinsville became public last night when Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis reported that the county had received the resignation of two of the plant’s employees.

The county also released a six-page report by a consultant hired to review the operation of both of the country’s sewage treatment facilities.

The consultant said the Calls Creek plant is not properly managing solids in the water that is processed and that “several equipment items necessary for effective operation have not been operational for a year or more.”

Similar problems exist at the county’s only other sewage treatment facility, the Rocky Branch Land Application System, and the consultant said that both facilities are in need of “effective management” and a change of operating procedures.

Other Documents Released

Davis acknowledged the problem at the Calls Creek plant at the beginning of last night’s BOC meeting. The video below is of those comments in their entirety.

OCO: Davis On Calls CreekBOC 5 26 15 Reg Meet Davis from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Davis’ comments followed by just two hours the release of documents by County Clerk Jane Greathouse that spelled out the timeline of the investigation of the problem at the Calls Creek plant and gave some indication of the problem itself.

Davis only said there was an “issue” at the plant and that the county had addressed it.

Greathouse released to me at 4:57 p.m. the additional documents consisting of email exchanges in response to an open records request I filed on May 20.

The email referenced the report by Bob Sheldon of Dacula but gave no indication of the resignations of the two employees.

County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko told me after the meeting that he had "accepted resignations" from individuals who held the positions of plant superintendent and of plant maintenance supervisor, but he refused to release the names.


I asked Jenanne White, Oconee County Utility Department administrative assistant, for a departmental directory today to be able to identify the two individuals in those positions. She referred me to Greathouse, who is the open records officer for the county.

Greathouse acknowledged my open records request for that information late today but did not provide the directory to me.

Gene Price of Statham lists himself as wastewater superintendent at Oconee County on Linkedin, a business-oriented social networking site. He says he has been with the Utility Department since June of 1998.

Several persons have confirmed that he was superintendent of the Calls Creek plant.

I have a name of a person who I believe was the maintenance supervisor, but I have not been able to confirm that name officially.

Calls Creek

The report by Sheldon paints a very negative picture of the operation of both of the county’s wasterwater treatment plants and is particularly critical of the operation of the Calls Creek facility.

Sheldon said he visited the facilities on May 4, 5, 12 and 15 and reviewed plant records and interviewed staff.

Solids have not been dewatered and removed from the Calls Creek plant in “over a year,” Sheldon wrote. The belt press used to remove water from the solids “has not been operating for at least a year.”

In addition, “drying beds were not in usable condition at the time of inspection,” according to Sheldon.

According to the report, one of the clarifiers was not out of service for at least a year. One of the membrane reactors is out of service. A sludge pump is not operating at capacity. The grit system is not operational. The grit classifier is not operational. One of the orbal aerator has a bad shaft and needs to be replaced.

Rocky Branch

Sheldon’s list of problems at the Rocky Branch facility was only slightly shorter.

Excessive solids have built up in one of the ponds. The pond is only 10-feet-deep and has a solid build up of 7 to 8 feet, he wrote.

Another of the ponds is designed to have five floating aerators. Only four have been installed and only three are operational.

The plant “is receiving shock loads, causing an organic overload, from a customer facility that is in the process of obtaining an industrial pretreatment permit" from the Georgia Environment Protection Divison, Sheldon reported.

The report does not identify the customer, but Benson’s Bakery in Bogart is seeking issuance of a pretreatment permit for discharge to the Rocky Branch facility, according to the Public Notice for April 15, 2015, of the EPD.

Nature Of “Issue”

While Sheldon’s report includes the litany of problems and offers solutions, it doesn’t indicate the nature of the “issue” at the Calls Creek plant that Davis referred to last night.

Utility Director Thomas told Administrative Officer Benko in an email on April 29 that he had met that day with Steve Walker at EPD to discuss “solids leaving the Calls Creek plant.”

A person not identified in the email messages provided the county in late April with pictures and video that showed dirty effluent flowing into Calls Creek below the Calls Creek sewage plant.

Calls Creek is a tributary of the Oconee River that flows, downstream from the plant, through Hickory Hill subdivision and other residential areas east of Watkinsville.

Thomas told Benko that he didn’t have the pictures and video to show to Walker “since I never received a copy of them.”

Complaint To Davis

Walker, according to Thomas, asked why the county had not reported the problem earlier. Thomas said he didn’t know of the problem prior to receipt of the pictures and video.

“In the end his main concern was how to prevent this from happening again,” Thomas wrote.

The person who presented the pictures and video to the county was Mark Thomas, a member of the Oconee County Board of Education and of the county’s Industrial Development Authority.

Mark Thomas and his brother own about 100 acres, part of it inside the city limits of Watkinsville, that is on Calls Creek and is downstream from the sewage plant.

Mark Thomas told me today that he took the video and pictures to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis on the afternoon of April 27.

Timeline Of Investigation

Benko notified the four voting commissioners, Chief Deputy Lee Weems in the Sheriff’s Office, Clerk Greathouse, and County Attorney Daniel Haygood of the meeting Chris Thomas had with EPD on the day of that meeting, April 29

On May 1, Benko told the commissioners that he, Davis, and Jimmy Parker of Precision Planning Inc., a frequent county consultant, had met with Sheldon to discuss the “Calls Creek incident.” Sheldon, Benko said, had worked for more than 20 years operating Gwinnett County wastewater plants.

Benko said he showed Sheldon the pictures and video during that meeting.

On May 19, Benko told the commissioners that he had a copy of the Sheldon report and invited them to meet, in pairs, in his office to review the report.

My open records request was for email between Davis and Chris Thomas, Benko and Chris Thomas, Davis and the commissioners, and Benko and the commissioners from March 25 to May 20, the day I submitted it.

Replacement Plant

Utility Department Director Thomas on March 31 asked the Board of Commissioners to build an additional wastewater treatment facility on the Calls Creek site to parallel and largely replace the existing one.

The Board is to discuss and approve spending $2.3 million on that facility at its meeting next Tuesday. The new plant will not be operational until the end of 2016, Chris Thomas told me.

I talked to Director Thomas about that plan on May 20, before I filed my open records request, and asked him to elaborate on some of the comments he had made at the BOC meeting on March 31.

Thomas told me that the existing plant was operating only at 70 to 80 percent efficiency, but he assured me that the water being treated was meeting discharge standards.

He made no mention of the problem at the plant, of the Sheldon report, of the self-report to the EPD, or of the photos or video.

Thomas Yesterday And Today

Utility Derector Thomas made two presentations to the Board of Commissioners last night, following the comments by Davis about the “issue” at Calls Creek.

Thomas presented revisions to the county’s Water and Wastewater Systems Ordinance for discussion and a contract for construction of the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector.

Final action was not taken on either.

I tried to reach Chris Thomas by telephone today to ask him about the pictures and video and about the two employees who resigned from the Calls Creek Plant. He did not return my call.

Utility Department Administrative Assistant White told me Thomas was at the water treatment plant this morning and spent the afternoon in the Courthouse, where Davis and Benko have their offices.

Copy Of Report

Though Davis said last night that copies of the report were available, Benko had only a single copy for release.

I asked for a copy, as did Blake Giles of The Oconee Enterprise.

Commissioner John Daniell made a second copy for us.

Neither copy contained the cover, and I scribbled the cover information on the first sheet of my copy of the document.

I have scanned and uploaded my copy of the Sheldon report to, and it is available HERE.

Note added on 5/29/2015: The approval of the $2.3 million parallel plant for the Calls Creek treatment facility has been removed from the June 2 agenda of the BOC.

The money for the plant had been approved by the BOC on May 5, but the contract appeared on the draft agenda for the June 2 meeting released on May 22, and County Clerk Greathouse included the item on the agenda when she reviewed it for the BOC at the end of the meeting on May 26.


Anonymous said...


Chris Thomas is clearly not supervising his staff!

Melvin Davis refers to this nonchalantly as a "problem"?

Melvin Davis and Chris Thomas want a staggering $2,300,000.00 for a additional wastewater treatment facility on the Calls Creek site...but they cannot professionally operate the current one??!!

What the blanketedly blank is going on in Oconee?

Melvin Davis and Chris Thomas clearly cannot supervise staff to properly perform their duties, and then they have the gall to request $2,300,000?

Am I the only county resident disgusted by this? Please tell me the other four commissioners are up in arms and are going to raise heck?!

Anonymous said...

It looks like the GA-EPD was not inspecting these plants on any routine schedule. The county should have a contract with a consultant to review the plants and their operations on a regular basis. Obviously, the county administrators are not qualified to evaluate the condition of, or oprations at the plants. This situation smacks of mismanagement by all parties.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the County Administor Benko and Utilities Director Thomas need to resign. They lack basic management skills. The BOC is responsible for not thoroughly knowing what goes on in the Departments- Again mismanagement . I agree with previous comments that funding should not be allocated to county heads unable to competently do their jobs.

Wake up folks!

Anonymous said...

Trying to map the Calls Creek treatment facility and can't find a physical address online or in the report. Anyone have that information?

Also, when doing a quick Google search, I see independent and EPD reports of fecal contamination reports regarding Calls Creek going back a well as ongoing concern as to whether or not the county was effectively planning to prevent just this sort of thing.

I hope this renewed internal and external pressure will result in the issue being addressed.

Lee Becker said...

The plant is off Durhams Mill Way, which is off Charity Lane, which is off North Main Street (SR 15) near the intersection with US 441 east of Watkinsville.