Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko raised concerns about the build up of solids at the county’s Calls Creek wastewater treatment plant at least five days before problems at the plant were exposed by a citizen and nearly four weeks before consultant Bob Sheldon said solids at the plant had reached a critical stage.
Utility Department Director Chris Thomas reassured Benko that “I think everything is ok as far as sludge goes” at the plant.
But Thomas had told Benko late last year about serious violations of the county’s permits to operate its two sewage treatment facilities resulting from faulty record keeping, inoperable monitoring devices, and improper certification of those who were gathering data to monitor the operation of the plants.
At least by Jan. 21 of this year, Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis also was aware of those same problems, for that was when he sent an email messages to the four voting commissioners making reference to problems at the LAS site.
An examination of correspondence from the period offers no evidence that Benko, Davis or anyone else launched an independent investigation of the operation of the sewage plants until April 27 when the citizen--Board of Education member Mark Thomas--presented Davis pictures and videos that seemed to show the discharge of untreated sewage into Calls Creek.
No Request For Funds
Oconee County Utility Department Director Thomas had not informed Benko of inoperable equipment at the Calls Creek plant or that sludge was building up at the county’s Land Application System facility on Rocky Branch Road, the correspondence suggests.
Thomas also did not ask Benko, who has supervisory responsibility for the county’s Utility Department, for authorization to spend money to improve the operations of the plants, according to the documents examined.
Benko on his own did not instruct Thomas to spend money to address problems at the plants.
Utility Department Director Thomas, who is no relation to Board of Education member Mark Thomas, repeatedly reassured Benko that he was addressing the problems that were identified with the operation of the county’s wastewater treatment facilities.
Record Keeping Problems
Thomas told Benko on Dec. 23 of last year that the Georgia Environment Protection Division had found serious problems with record keeping at the county’s plants and with technical aspects of plant operation.
And Utility Department Director Thomas told Benko in December that the Utility Department staff had not been responsive to earlier criticisms by EPD regarding those issues.
On April 22 of this year, Thomas sent Benko an email message saying, “Per your inquiry, I have checked on sludge disposal at Calls Creek.”
Thomas said the state Environmental Protection Division had not found any problems with county reports on sludge removal at the plant.
Thomas told Benko he would “continue to monitor” the sludge removal.
County Response To Video
Following the revelations by Mark Thomas, the county hired Bob Sheldon as a consultant to provide an independent review of the operation of the county’s two sewage treatment facilities.
On May 17 Sheldon completed a report that listed a long series of problems, including an inoperable belt press at the Calls Creek plant and an accumulation of solids at both facilities. The belt press is a key piece of equipment for removal of water from solids generated by the sewage treatment operation.
The county has not provided any explanation for the problems identified by the pictures and video made by Mark Thomas or the problems that led to the two critical EPD reports.
The Utility Department operates as what the county calls an “Enterprise Fund,” meaning it has more autonomy that other departments.
The Utility Department generates revenue from water and sewer fees to cover all costs. It does not rely on the Board of Commissioners to allocate tax revenue for its operation.
Chain Of Command
The Utility Department director reports to Administrative Officer Benko, who reports to the full Board of Commissioners.
But Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis also plays a key role.
The permits from the state that the county holds to operate the sewer plants are in the name of the Board of Commissioners, and BOC Chairman Davis has to sign the monthly Discharge Monitoring Reports for each of the county’s two wasterwater treatment plants. These reports go to the EPD.
Benko and Davis have adjoining offices in the courthouse and interact frequently.
Both also have frequent interactions with department heads.
Requests For Information
Since the first of June, I filed eight separate open records requests to obtain specific information about the problems with the county’s sewer plants.
One of those was directed to County Finance Director Wes Geddings. Another was directed to the Utility Department. A third was directed to Kathy Hayes, administrative assistant to BOC Chairman Davis.
The remainder were directed to Benko, and all dealt with his correspondence with Thomas.
I chose to let the written record speak for itself and did not ask Benko for his recollections about the events surrounding the problems at the sewer plants or seek his comments on the correspondence I received.
Limitations Of Correspondence
The correspondence between Benko and Thomas is crucial, given Benko’s supervisory role relative to Chris Thomas and the Utility Department.
When Chris Thomas resigned on July 8, Benko took over day-to-day operation of the Department. Gene Price, wastewater supervisor, resigned on May 21.
The commissioners voted last night to hire Wayne Haynie as Thomas’ replacement, effective Aug. 10.
Benko and Thomas are likely to have discussed problems at the sewer plants in staff meeting, but the correspondence I did receive suggests there likely would have been email correspondence following those conversations.
Fear Of EPD
The EPD wrote to Utility Department Director Chris Thomas on Nov. 25 and Dec. 16 regarding problems at the Calls Creek Plant and at the Rocky Branch LAS site. The letters said the problems identified were “serious violations” of the county’s permits for the plants.
On Dec. 23, Director Thomas sent an email message to Benko saying that he had met the previous day with Donald McCarthy, manager of the Athens office of the EPD, and with EPD environmental compliance specialists Vickie Yarbrough and Steve Walker.
Director Thomas was joined in the meeting by Mike Bledsoe, a consultant to the county, and Gene Price, wastewater supervisor. Bledsoe is a professional engineer with The Engineering Group Inc. in Watkinsville.
Thomas told Benko that the recent inspection by the EPD of the LAS site did not go very well. There were numerous deficiencies identified and there was an apparent lack of follow up on several of the items.”
Director Thomas told Benko that Bledsoe had started “the process of securing an economical solution” to meeting EPD requirements for flow monitoring at the LAS site.
Beldsoe also would review the operating procedures at the facility and begin “editing and monitoring them as needed,” Thomas wrote.
“I will be monitoring the progress of the corrective actions and will periodically check to ensure that the new procedures are maintained,” Thomas wrote.
Director Thomas did have some good news to report to Benko.
No Fines Expected
“At this time there was no mention of fines or actions against us as long as we follow through with our plans as described in the meeting and the attached correspondence,” Thomas wrote.
In January, BOC Chairman Davis followed up with a telephone conversation with EPD Manager McCarty.
On Jan. 21, 2015, Davis sent McCarty an email message, 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 copied that email message to Commissioners Jim Luke, John Daniell, William “Bubber” Wilkes and Mark Saxon.
The EPD sent Chris Thomas a letter in September of 2013 about “serious violations” at the Calls Creek Plant, but it isn’t clear from the email record if Thomas told Benko about that notice.
On Oct. 31, 2014, however, Thomas gave Benko a clear signal that major problems existed at the Calls Creek plant.
In an email message of that date, Thomas told Benko that an effort to purchase a used replacement plant had been unsuccessful.
“One of the reasons for needing to upgrade so quickly was the degraded performance of our existing membranes,” Thomas wrote in reference to a central component of the Calls Creek plant.
Failure At Plant
“As you are aware,” Thomas continued in that email, “the membranes were originally thought to have a 10 -15 year life expectancy, but based on our experience and the experience of others that is now 7 years.
“Our membranes are 10-14 years old and had steadily deteriorated to near un-useful levels over the past couple of years,” Thomas continued in the email. “That was one of the reasons for considering a change in treatment plans and upgrades.”
According to Thomas, the “wastewater staff took an initiative to develop a new cleaning regime in an attempt to regenerate the membranes if only for a short time.”
The effort was successful, Thomas wrote, and the “system has regained a lot of its lost permeability and is functioning very well.”
The “cleaning regime” extended the file of the existing system from two to five years, according to the email.
"This is not an excuse to sit back and wait, but it should give us a little time to try and locate another used, steel erected treatment plant to be relocated to Calls Creek,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas did come back to the BOC with another used replacement system earlier this year and recommended that the county purchase it.
The BOC voted in on May 5 to spend $2.3 million for the plant, but it has never actually approved a contract for the purchase.
Thomas estimated it would take more than a year to get the replacement system operating once the purchase had been completed.
Request Of Utility Department
The request I filed for Utility Department documents centered on any bids for repair work on the county’s two sewage treatment plants from Jan. 1, 2013, to June 8, 2015.
The latter date was when I filed the request.
Chris Thomas sought bids for work on the two plants after Mark Thomas presented his photos and videos to Chairman Davis in late April of this year.
But already on Sept. 13, 2013, Thomas had received a “Scope of Work and Fee Proposal” from The Engineering Group’s Bledsoe for handling of solids at the Calls Creek plant.
Bledsoe estimated it would cost $86,960 to design an upgrade to replace existing operations and increase the capacity of the “solids handling facilities” at the Calls Creek plant. The figure did not include administrative costs for construction.
Thomas forwarded the proposal to Benko on Sept. 18, 2013, and Benko approved moving forward with the project on Sept. 25.
Two Additional Records Requests
On July 1, I filed an open records request asking for correspondence between Benko and Utility Department Director Thomas from Jan. 1, 2014, to April 30, 2015, regarding the repair or replacement of the belt press or repair or replacement of worn membranes at the Calls Creek wastewater treatment facility.
That request produced the correspondence between Benko and Thomas regarding the December 2013 response to the critical EPD report on both the LAS and Calls Creek facilities.
On July 3, I filed an open records request asking for correspondence between Benko and Thomas from Jan. 1, 2013, to April 30, 2015, regarding the removal of solids from the LAS site on Rocky Branch Road.
That request produced email correspondence between Benko and Thomas about an odor complaint at the LAS site.
Thomas told Benko that Bledsoe was working on improvements at the LAS site “to facilitate odor removal.”
Request Regarding Personnel
On July 8, I filed a request for correspondence between Benko and Thomas from December of 2014 to March of 2015 regarding Price, the Utility Department wastewater supervisor.
That request produced the Dec. 23, 2013, email from Thomas to Benko indicating that there had been “an apparent lack of follow up on several of the items” mentioned in the EPD letter listing violations of the permits for operation of the county’s two plants.
That email did not indicate whom Thomas was blaming for the lack of follow up.
Thomas attached correspondence with the EPD in which Price was mentioned in his capacity as wastewater supervisor.
The timeline below summarizes the developments regarding the problems at the two wastewater treatment plants.
The timeline is broken into blocks.
Click on any one of the images to enlarge it.