Oconee County citizens and officials got some good news yesterday regarding the county’s Calls Creek wastewater treatment plant.
The Upper Oconee Watershed Network, a volunteer group dedicated to protecting water resources in the Upper Oconee basis, reported that its sampling of Calls Creek at two locations downstream from the plant on Saturday showed relatively low levels of the potentially dangerous E. coli bacteria.
This was the case despite an unknown number of discharges from the plant into Calls Creek of inadequately treated wastewater over an unspecified period of time and a documented spill of untreated sewage into the creek on May 29.
A UOWN sampling of water at the plant itself showed it producing at the time the two samples were drawn on Saturday morning water completely without the E. coli bacteria, which is what is required by federal standards for drinking water.
Bruno Giri, president of UOWN, and UOWN volunteer Vicki Soutar, a retired Oconee County science teacher, drew two samples from each four sites along Calls Creek on Saturday morning. They also took two samples at the wastewater plant itself.
One of those sites four sites along the creek was in Harris Shoals Park below the popular shoals but considerably upstream from the sewer plant, and another was just upstream from the discharge point of the sewage treatment plant into Calls Creek.
|Calls Creek At Hickory Hill Drive|
The volunteers drew samples at two additional sites, one at the discharge pipe itself, and another from the creek where Hickory Hill Drive crosses it in Hickory Hill subdivision.
Giri, a chemist who works for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Russell Research Center in Athens, took these 10 samples from the five sites on Saturday afternoon to Erin Lipp in the University of Georgia’s Microbiology Department for analysis in her lab.
By late Saturday afternoon, Giri had the results back from Lipp. He released the results to me yesterday morning, and they are available HERE.
The cleanest data–on this single test–came from the two samples drawn at the end of the treatment process at the plant, where both had 0 CFU’s of the E. coli bacteria.
A CFU is a colony-forming unit and is used in microbiology to estimate the number of viable bacteria in a sample. If the cell is able to multiply in a culture, it is counted as viable.
The two samples from the water that flowed from the pipes directly into Calls Creek had readings of 15 and 20 CFUs per 100 milliliters (ml).
The next cleanest data came from Harris Shoals, where 120 CFUs per 100 ml of water were counted in one sample and 145 in the other.
The dirtiest site–on this single measure--was just upstream from the discharge point, with readings of 395 and 455 CFUs per ml.
The Hickory Hill Drive site had readings of 295 and 320 CFUs per ml.
On April 27, Board of Education member Mark Thomas showed Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis video Mark Thomas shot at that discharge pipe dated April 3 and April 7. The water flowing from the pipes was almost black.
County officials have never indicated what, if anything, they know about how frequently such discharges occurred.
Utility Department Director Chris Thomas, who oversees the sewer plants, referred to the discharges as “events” in an email message on April 29 sent to county Administrative Officer Jeff Benko.
A consultant the county hired to examine the problems at the county’s two water treatment plants said equipment and procedures necessary for their efficient operation had not be in place or operating for a year or more.
|Entrance On Simonton Bridge Road|
On top of that, the county had a break in the sewer line at the plant on May 29 with a known discharge into the creek.
County officials have played down the significance of the problems at the sewer plants from the beginning. Chairman Davis made the first announcement of an “issue” at the Calls Creek plant at the BOC meeting on May 26.
Mostly, the media have downplayed the story as well.
The county’s luck changed on yesterday, when the Athens Banner-Herald ran a story about UOWN sampling and about the problems at the Calls Creek plant, which is located just north of the city limits of Watkinsville.
Consistent with the paper’s current layout format, the story, written by education reporter Lee Shearer, had a picture of Calls Creek that took up most of the top half of the front page of the paper. The story itself, with two more pictures, took up most of the rest of the front page.
The story, with largely negative information about the county’s problems with it sewer plants, was picked up the the Associated Press news cooperative and appeared in the online editions of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB TV, The Telegraph in Macon, and other sites, including one in San Francisco.
The Banner-Herald countered that critical coverage with a story on page 3 of the paper today about the UOWN samples and analysis.
“Don’t worry: The Water’s fine in Oconee County,” the headline across the top of the page said.
The kicker, or subheadline, read: “UOWN’s tests find acceptable levels of bacteria in Calls Creek.”
The story misstated the nature of the spill on May 29 (the waste was untreated, not partially treated) and referred to the discharges recorded by Mark Thomas on video as a spill as well. The story had a different headline in the online version.
It also did not indicate that a test for E. coli, while important, is only one of many analyses done to test water quality.
Giri told me this morning that UOWN intends to monitor Calls Creek again in the near future, probably on July 12.
That monitoring likely will include a conductivity test and analysis of nitrate and phosphate concentrations, according to Giri.
UOWN has monitored the creek in the past as part of its routine monitoring of area streams.
The problems Oconee County has had with the operation of both of its plants has increased interest on the part of UOWN in monitoring the quality of the county’s streams, Giri said.
Industrial Development Authority
One group that passed up a chance to discuss these problems was the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority, which met for about an hour yesterday afternoon in the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
Almost all of the capacity of the county’s two sewage facilities is dedicated to commercial and industrial use, making them a not-uncommon topic at Authority meetings.
In fact, BOC Chairman Davis, who is an Authority member, mentioned a planned upgrade of the Calls Creek plant at the May Authority meeting.
Mark Thomas also is a member of the Authority, but he did not attend the meeting yesterday.
Another Authority member is state Rep. Chuck Williams.
As is usual in Authority meetings, each member yesterday was given a chance to raise issues and mention concerns and activities.
No one mentioned the problems at the sewer plants.