Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Oconee County Commissioners Have Known Since First Of The Year Of Serious Problems At County’s Sewer Plants

Only Took Action In Early May

Oconee County commissioners have known since at least the first of the year that the county has very serious problems with the operation of its two sewage treatment plants, but they waited until last week to give a hint to the general public of the problems the county is facing.

At the regular meeting of the Board last week, Chairman Melvin Davis said the county “had been made aware of an issue” at the Calls Creek plant a month earlier, but the Georgia Environment Protection Division told the county on Dec. 16, 2014, of a “serious violation” of its permit at the Calls Creek plant and permit violations at its Rocky Branch plant as well.

Scum Below Calls Creek
Plant 4/2/2015

The silence on the issue was maintained at the meeting of the commissioners last night, when not a word was said about the ongoing crisis surrounding the county’s Utility Department, which operates the county’s two sewage plants.

That was true even though the county announced on Monday another sewage spill, following announcement on Friday of two spills that day.

Davis, County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, Board of Education Member Mark Thomas and Blake Giles, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, had met earlier in the day to discuss the sewer system problems. No members of the public were invited to that session.

Mark Thomas was the one who presented Davis with videos and pictures of pollution of Calls Creek downstream from the county’s treatment plant, forcing Davis’ public acknowledgment of the “issue” on May 26.

Small Spill, Big Problem

The spill on Monday was a relatively small one, according to the announcement on the county’s web site.

The spill was the result of a broken sewer line near the intersection of Mars Hill Road and SR 316.

The result was the spill of 100 to 300 gallons of sewage into McNutt Creek.

On Friday, the county told the state Environmental Protection Division that 300 to 600 gallons of sewage spilled into McNutt Creek near Creekside subdivision, off Jimmy Daniell Road.

Also on Friday, the county told EPD of what it termed a major spill of untreated sewage into Calls Creek at the sewage treatment plant on Durhams Mill Way. The county estimated the volume at between 7,000 and 8,000 gallons, but it acknowledged it was difficult to know since pipe that failed was under pressure and the “flow was fast and substantial.”

EPD Report

On Dec. 16, 2014, Donald H. McCarty Jr., manager of the northeast district of the EPD, wrote to Chris Thomas, Oconee County Utility Department director, regarding a site visit from Vickie Yarbrough to the Rocky Branch Land Application System site. That visit was on Dec. 10, 2014.

The report listed five items that were in violation of the permit for that facility and for the Calls Creek facility.

Scum Below Calls Creek
Plant 4/2/2015

Included were lack of a flow meter for the effluent at the LAS site, the lack of sampling of one of the ponds at that facility, and unreported data on soil at the site.

The Dec. 16 letter said that an inspection on Aug. 29, 2013, had turned up problems at the Calls Creek plant including lost fecal coliform records and using an uncertified person to perform required laboratory work without supervision.

Both of the problems at the Calls Creek plant were labeled a “serious violation” of the permit for the plant.

County Response

Utility Department Director Thomas responded to McCarty’s letter on Dec. 23, according to the files in the regional EPD office, 745 Gaines School Road, in Athens.

Utility Director Thomas said “We intend to have all of the above items corrected...within the next 90 days including the installation of any needed equipment.”

Discharge Pipe 4/2/2015

Utility Director Thomas copied his response to Jeff Benko, administrative officer of Oconee County, to whom Thomas reports.

Chris Thomas is not related to Mark Thomas, who reported the problem with the Calls Creek plant to Chairman Davis. Mark Thomas, in addition to being an elected member of the Board of Education, serves as an appointed member of the county’s Industrial Development Authority.

Email Exchange

On Jan. 21, 2015, BOC Chairman Davis wrote to McCarty via email, thanking him for discussing the “LAS site issues that our staff is addressing.”

“I am confident Oconee County will meet and surpass requirements,” Davis continued.

Davis thanked McCarty for proposing that they meet for lunch and suggested several days in late January.

Davis copied that email message to Commissioners Jim Luke, John Daniell, William “Bubber” Wilkes and Mark Saxon.

Davis also copied Administrative Officer Benko, County Attorney Daniel Haygood, and County Clerk Jane Greathouse as well as his administrative assistant, Kathy Hayes.

Thomas Video And Pictures

Mark Thomas told me in a telephone conversation I had with him on May 27, the day after Davis’ announcement about the latest “issue” at the Calls Creek plant, that he had been the one who reported a problem at the plant to Davis.

Mark Thomas had told me he had been tipped off about the problem at the plant, but he would not tell me who had been the informant.

I met with Mark Thomas at the Chicken Express restaurant in Watkinsville yesterday afternoon, and Thomas was joined by Michael Palmer, a former employee of the Calls Creek plant.

Mark Thomas told me that Palmer had called him on March 29, a Sunday, and told him that there was a problem at the plant.

Both Mark Thomas and Palmer said that Palmer did not know Mark Thomas owned land downstream from the plant at that time. Palmer said he called Mark Thomas because he knew Mark Thomas was an elected official in the county and because he knew him socially.

Palmer had coached two of Mark Thomas’ children, both of them said.

Began Investigation

Mark Thomas told me he and Palmer went to his farm on Calls Creek on the evening of March 29, but it was dark and difficult to see.

Mark Thomas said that he and his brother, Mitch, immediately began looking into the problem. The two jointly own the roughly 100 acres.

OCO: Clip Labeled 4-3-15 from Lee Becker on Vimeo

They got in touch with people at the University of Georgia, learned how to take samples, and did draw samples over a two-week period.

They also shot video and took pictures, which are shown above and below.

Lab Reports

Dr. Jake Mowrer, interim program coordinator at the UGA Crops and Environmental Quality Labs, 2300 College Station Road, confirmed to me in a telephone conversation this morning that Mitch Thomas had been a client of his.

Mark Thomas yesterday gave me copies of reports from UGA, one of which reported a total coliform level of 241,920 and an E. Coli level of 11,780.

The form labeled these readings as “not acceptable.”

Mark Thomas told me he had taken some of the samples from the discharge pipe of the Calls Creek plant and some from the creek below the discharge pipe.

Mark Thomas said that somewhere between April 15 and 20, the water started to be visibly clearer.

He said he thinks someone realized he and his brother were monitoring the plant.

Meetings With Davis

Mark Thomas said he got the lab reports on April 24.

He said he called Davis at that point and met with Davis on the 27th of April, a Monday.

Mark Thomas said he took along his computer with the video and pictures he had shot and the lab reports.

Mark Thomas said he met again with Davis the next day. This time he brought along Palmer, who had pictures he had shot at the plant and at the creek.

Mark Thomas said he gave electronic copies of the video and pictures to Davis during that meeting on April 28.

OCO: Clip Labeled 4-9-15 from Lee Becker on Vimeo

I had filed an open records request for electronic copies of pictures and videos Monday evening, before I even knew I was going to be invited to the meeting with Mark Thomas and Palmer.

I received those materials yesterday afternoon, after that meeting. The videos were labeled by Thomas by date, but the raw files do not show the dates the videos were shot. The pictures do show the dates they were created, and those dates are noted beneath the pictures used above.

All five of the videos have been merged into a single video file, which is at the very bottom of this post.


Palmer resigned from his position at the Calls Creek plant on March 30, according to a document I received from the county via an open records request last week.

That was the day after he informed Mark Thomas of the problem at the plants.

Palmer said in a hand-written note that he resigned “over being terminated by Chris Thomas.” He said that option had been given to him at 2 p.m. that day.

Michael Occhipinti, maintenance supervisor at the plant, resigned on May 3, which was one day before a county consultant began an investigation of operation of the county’s two sewage treatment plants.

Unsolicited Call

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas called me unsolicited yesterday to tell me that Occhipinti’s resignation was unrelated to the problems at the county’s sewage plant.

Occhipinti was looking for work closer to his home in Clarkesville in Habersham County, Chris Thomas said.

Chris Thomas called Occhipinti a “long-time and good employee.”

Gene Price, wastewater supervisor, resigned on May 21, effective the next day. He wrote that he had “secured employment elsewhere.”

Very Critical Report

Benko had informed the commissioners of the problem at the Calls Creek plant on April 29, but he wrote in his email message late on that date that “By now I am sure you are aware of the calls creek incident.”

The report from consultant Bob Sheldon of Dacula, released to the Oconee County commissioners on May 19, was scathing.

Sheldon wrote in his report that solids have not been dewatered and removed from the Calls Creek plant in “over a year.” 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.

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

Item Removed

At the beginning of last night’s meeting, Chairman Davis asked that the Board to remove one item from the agenda–discussion of a proposed change to the county’s water and wastewater systems ordinance.

Utility Department Director Thomas was supposed to present the ordinance change, which has been under consideration for several months.

Davis gave no reason for the delay in consideration of the ordinance until July 28.

Thomas did not appear at the meeting.

Budget Approved

At its meeting last night, the BOC approved the Fiscal Year 2016 budget after removing one new position–from the Property Appraisal Department–at a savings of $44,700.

The Board agreed to review the request as the year progresses and a new hire in the office gets familiar with the work requirements.

The Board also agreed to grant a cost of living adjustment to county employees of 1.5 percent and retain unspent funds for allocation in January, based on criteria to be agreed upon later.

The total budget approved was $39.7 million

Mars Hill Road Development

Davis also announced that work was progressing on an overlay district for Mars Hill Road and that the BOC likely would hold a work session in the next four to six weeks to discuss that issue.

The overlay district, which the commissioners discussed in rough terms earlier this year, would create a standard for development along the roadway.

Construction work on the roadway is expected to last for another two plus years, but the county wants to be ready to approve commercial development along the roadway as it reaches completion.

B.R. White, head of the county’s Planning Department, told me last month that he has been working with a consultant to help ready ordinances for review by the commissioners.

Flyover Again

During the discussion of the budget, Davis said he had two projects he wants the Board to undertake in the year, though he was not asking for money for them in the budget.

The first is a traffic study of the SR 316 and Epps Bridge Parkway corridor. He said he thought there might be some state funding available for such a study.

Davis last year and earlier this year had promoted two state contracts to begin construction of an extension of Daniells Bridge Road with a flyover of SR Loop 10 and the widening of the existing road, but he could only get one vote from the Board--from Wilkes--to go forward.

A new study would be a way for Davis to push the Board to revisit the issue.

Other Announcements

Davis also said he wants to study reclassification of county jobs and employees.

Commissioner Bubber Wilkes, had a comment he wanted the Board and public to hear as well. It is below.

OCO: BOC Statements from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Wilkes congratulated Davis for winning the Robert L. and Betty Williford Distinguished Northeast Georgian Award, given by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

Video From Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas gave Davis five video clips when he met with him on April 28.

These appear to be shot with different cameras.

The first was labeled as from April 3. The next three were labeled as from April 7. The last was labeled for April 9.

I have merged these five clips together, sequentially, in the video below.

The two video clips used in the post above are taken from the front of the April 3 video and the front of the April 9 video.

OCO: Clips Shown Davis from Lee Becker on Vimeo


Anonymous said...

This is gross negligence by the commissioners. I'm wondering is it criminal? What are the laws that require public notifications?

For the commissioners to know this and hide this from the public is simply irresponsible, and we should rightfully question their competence and intent. It is clear that we need a higher quality of commissioners than we have now.

Anonymous said...

If they didn't have you, Lee Becker, looking over their shoulder, no telling what they would try to get away with. I think The Oconee Enterprise bends over backward to be helpful to Melvin Davis and the sheriff.

Anonymous said...

Lee Becker, Thank you for everything you do on Oconee Observations. Truly, if you weren't sacrificing your time to peel away the unending layers of false perceptions dished out by the commissioners, there's no telling how far something like this would have gone before this negligence became a bigger environmental disaster that would take decades to clean up.

This is gut wrenching! The issue finally boiled over and all the recent blame on Chris Thomas was another smoke screen and false perception of the REAL problem. Its hard to believe the commissioners knew there was a problem, and did NOTHING ABOUT IT and kept it quiet from the public. This is unacceptable Oconee County, wake up and demand accountability of the commissioners FOR THEIR LACK OF ACTION, or it will be your property they crap on next.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't Mr. Thomas immediately report what he saw to someone at the Utility Department? Why did he wait a month before letting anyone know? You mean to tell me that an employee at the waste water plant didn't know what to do so he contacted a member of our BOE? Something isn't right.

Lee Becker said...

Chris Thomas has said that he learned of the problem at the Calls Creek plant after Mark Thomas reported the problem to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis. It is impossible from the email exchanges I have seen to corroborate or challenge that.

Anonymous said...

There sure seems to be a lot of people named "Anonymous" in Oconee County. I agree with the others that Lee Becker is providing a great service bringing these issues forward. But Anonymous can only vote once, so maybe the commissioners don't pay attention. Maybe we should use our real name....

Mine is Patrick Boyle.

How 'bout the rest of you Anonymous folks?

Anonymous said...

Patrick, I commend you for posting your name. I unfortunately work in a position where Melvin Davis has influence with my employer. In a perfect world, we'd all leave our names. But I have no doubt Melvin is vindictive. I just hope we all tell every county resident we know about this website, and all of the various issues its brought up. The raw sewage situation is a true scandal, and a failure by our elected officials, Benko and Thomas.

Lee Becker said...

This is a truncated version of a post submitted. I dropped a part of the post because it did not meet the standards I set for comments.

It's interesting how the Thomas's property is downstream from calls creek not across from the plant and they managed to trespass through thick woods to happen upon the outfall which has a sign with a number to call if a problem is observed. They then saw a sewer spill that happened at an exact time three different days after work hours at calls creek and all of this was brought to them....