Friday, May 29, 2015

Oconee County Releases Names Of Employees Who Resigned From Troubled Calls Creek Sewage Plant

EPD Visited Plant Today

Oconee County late today identified the two employees whose resignations were accepted in the wake of the discharge of inadequately treated sewage water into Calls Creek from a county wastewater treatment plant.

They are Gene Price, wastewater supervisor, and Anthony Occhipinti, maintenance supervisor.

Price resigned on May 21, two days after County Administrative Office Jeff Benko received a report from consultant Bob Sheldon that was very critical of the operation of both of the county’s wastewater treatment facilities.

Calls Creek Plant Entrance

Price made his resignation effective May 22, saying “I have secured employment elsewhere.”

Occhipinti resigned May 3, or two days before Sheldon even began his investigation of the two plants.

Occhipinti resigned effective May 15, saying “The work atmosphere has changed drastically over the last few years and not for the better.”

Also today, Steve Walker, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division officer to whom the county first reported the problem at the Calls Creek plant on April 29, visited the plant just outside Watkinsville for the first time.

Walker said the visit was not a follow-up to that April 29 report and was not a scheduled routine inspection, but he would not tell the reason for the visit.

Resignations Accepted

Benko said at the end of the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night that he had accepted the resignations of the plant superintendent and the maintenance supervisor at the Calls Creek sewage plant, but he refused to name the two individuals.

I filed an open records request on Wednesday afternoon for the directory of the utility department and last evening for letters of resignation or termination of Utility Department personnel in 2014 and 2015.

I received the letters of resignation from County Clerk Jane Greathouse just after 3 p.m. today and the “System Personnel Contact List” just before 5 p.m. Greathouse is the county open records officer.

Price is listed as the wastewater supervisor on the contact list. The Utility Department also has a water supervisor, reflecting the separate wastewater treatment and water branches of the department.

Occhipinti is listed simply as the maintenance supervisor on the contact list and on his letter of resignation.

Two Other Resignations

The open records request showed that Carol Bennett resigned on May 20, 2014, from an unspecified position in the Utility Department to take another job.

Calls Creek At Harris Shoals

She praised the Utility Department.

Michael Palmer, a wastewater operator, resigned on March 30, effective that date. The county says the problem at the Calls Creek plant surfaced a month later.

Palmer submitted a hand-written note saying:

“I Michael Palmer took the option to resign over being terminated by Chris Thomas that was given to me at 2 p.m.”

Thomas is the Utility Department director.

Palmer wrote that he would submit a formal letter to Malinda Smith, county Human Resource Director, on April 20, but Smith wrote at the bottom of the note from Palmer that no formal letter has been received.

Benko Hiring

Benko told me in an email message last evening, before I had received the resignation letters, that he had instructed Smith to begin the recruitment process for wastewater supervisor and maintenance superintendent “as well as a class III operator.”

Benko said he had received no additional resignations.

Thomas, as well as all other county department heads except for Finance Director Wes Geddings, report to Benko, who reports to the Board of Commissioners. Geddings also reports directly to the commissioners.

Benko has been heading up the investigation of the problems at the Calls Creek plant since Board of Education and Industrial Development Authority member Mark Thomas reported to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis about those problems.

On April 27, Mark Thomas gave Davis pictures and video from his property, which is downstream from the plant, that showed polluted water in the creek.

EPD Report

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told Benko at the end of the day on April 29 that he had met with Walker at the EPD to report “regarding the pictures of solids leaving the Calls Creek plant.”

Chris Thomas said he had “discussed the video and pictures and described them in great detail” in his meeting with Walker.

Calls Creek Under Hickory Hill Drive

Walker told me today that Chris Thomas had come to his office at 745 Gaines School Road in Athens for that meeting.

Walker said the county is obligated to report any problem that involves a discharge that exceeds the limits of its permit and “that is what he was doing.”

Problem Unclear

Walker said that Chris Thomas reported “what he saw and what he knew,” and that it remains unclear what happened to cause the problem shown in the video and pictures presented to the county by Mark Thomas.

The data self-reported by the county do not show any problem in the discharge from the plant, Walker said.

Walker said “it is not assumed to be a major spill,” so the county was not required to notify landowners downstream or put a notice in the county legal organ, The Oconee Enterprise.

He said the county will continue to operate the plant and “will monitor intensively” to make sure the problem does not happen again.

“They are working feverishly trying to fix problems at the two (wastewater) facilities,” Walker said.

The report by consultant Sheldon harshly criticized the operation of both plants, saying many of the problems have existed for a year or more. (I have uploaded a copy of the report that I obtained, and it is available HERE.)

Calls Creek Plant

In addition to the Calls Creek plant, the county operates a land application system on Rocky Branch Road near North Oconee High School in the western part of the county.

The Calls Creek plant is just outside Watkinsville but not visible to most people in the county.

Access is from Charity Lane off North Main Street near its intersection east of the city with U.S. 441.

The plant itself is located on Durhams Mill Way, but access is restricted some distance from the plant’s actual entrance.

The plant is between Durhams Mill Way and Calls Creek south of Summit Drive. In the map above, the actual plant is in the gray area to the right of the marker.

Calls Creek Itself

Calls Creek flows through Watkinsville, and is the stream at the center of the popular Harris Shoals Park off Experiment Station Road.

After leaving Harris Shoals Park, Calls Creek flows under North Main Street. A major sewer line follows the creek at that point.

Sewage is pumped from that line up hill to the treatment plant. Treated water then is discharged back into Calls Creek.

From the plant, Calls Creek, carrying discharge from the plant, meanders through residential areas, including Hickory Hill subdivision, before reaching the Middle Oconee River just upstream from the Simonton Bridge Road crossing into Clarke County.

Replacing Calls Creek Plant

The Board of Commissioners has agreed to replace the existing Calls Creek plant with a refurbished plant that it has purchased.

The refurbished plant will be moved to and reassembled at the Calls Creek site, but it will not be operational for more than a year.

The county approved the $2.3 million purchase of the plant on May 5, but County Clerk Greathouse listed it again as an agenda item for final action at the June 2 meeting. (See note below.)

It was removed from the agenda today.

Walker Visit

Walker from the EPD told me in my telephone conversation with him this afternoon that I would have to contact Kevin Chambers at the EPD office in Atlanta to learn the reason for his visit to the Calls Creek plant today.

I spoke with Chambers, who is a press officer for EPD, and he told me he was unfamiliar with the county’s problems regarding the Calls Creek plant.

He told me he would need time to determine if he or someone else could provide an answer.

I have not yet heard back from Chambers.

Note: I originally reported that Greathouse had mistakenly listed the item for final action on June 2. She explained to me today (6/2/2015) that it was not a mistake. The BOC had approved the amount of the contract on May 5, but it had not approved the actual contract. The actual contract was to be before the Board on June 2. But the contract is not ready for final approval. For that reason, she removed it from the agenda for the June 2 meeting on May 29. I am the one who made a mistake. I should have said simply that she removed it, which is what I knew. I did not know why she removed it. I apologize for the error.


Xardox said...

Making the NPR news.

Anonymous said...

IF the plant was having solids problems, it was likely not meeting the discharge limits set in its NPDES permit. It is unlikely it had no other permit exceedences beyond the big documented solids release. Makes me think they may have been sending in "inaccurate" self monitoring reports. Who does the monitoring and lab work?

Lee Becker said...

The county is required to file a discharge monitoring report with the DNR. I plan to file an open records request to review those reports. Obviously, Chris Thomas and the county are responsible for the reports, but I do not yet know who inside the plant gathers the data and produces the reports.

Anonymous said...

If this occurred above Harris Shoals Park, has testing been done at the park? People are in thar creek all the time, especially children. There was an e-Coli outbreak there a few years ago that was publicly reported but no postings or signs at the park. Seems like a public safety issue.

Lee Becker said...

The plant, and the discharge, are downstream from Harris Shoals.