When a video surfaced in April of 2015 showing Oconee County discharging black water from its wastewater treatment plant into nearby Calls Creek, then Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis told the public the county had become aware of “an issue” at the plant and had it under control.
Oconee County Utility Department Director Wayne Haynie presented a very different view on Wednesday at a Board of Commissioners work session as he was making the case to abandon the existing technology used at the Calls Creek plant in favor of a new design for the plant upgrade.
Haynie described the problem at the plant before he took over as persistent and said it was due to technology that failed routinely. The plant operates efficiently today, he said, but the membranes continue to be difficult to manage.
Haynie said one of the reasons he wants to move forward as early as April on construction of the 1.5 million gallons per day replacement is to get rid of the membrane filtration technology that has crippled the plant in the past.
It is essential to move quickly on the replacement, Haynie said, since the current .667 million gallons per day plant is near capacity and the expanded plant will only get the county to a little beyond 2020.
His predecessor made that same argument about shrinking capacity to the Board of Commissioners before it voted 8 years ago–on Dec. 2, 2008--to upgrade the Calls Creek plant to 1 million gallons per day
The county, without further public discussion, never followed through on that vote.
On April 27 of 2015, Mark Thomas, then a member of the School Board and now a member of the Board of Commissioners, showed Davis a video he had shot at the discharge point of the Calls Creek plant. Thomas and his brother own property near that site.
The video, which I obtained and posted on June 3, showed very dark water being discharged from the plant into the creek.
I had learned of the problems at the plant earlier that year, and I had filed an open records request on May 20 to get correspondence regarding the problem.
I received a response on May 26 confirming that county leaders were working with an outside consultant regarding operation of the sewer plant.
Two hours later, Davis read this statement at the beginning of the regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners:
“Earlier this month we were made aware of an issue at our Calls Creek wastewater treatment facility. We responded to that issue, notified EPD, hired an independent consultant to review our procedures and policies. We are in the process at this point of implementing those recommendations made by the independent consultant. Following this issue, we have received a couple of employee resignations. Mr. Benko has a copy of the recommendations that were made by the independent consultant. And we’ll be happy to distribute those copies following this meeting to any of you that may desire copies of those.”
EPD refers to the state Environmental Protection Division. Benko is the county administrative officer.
Nature Of Problem
The documents I received on May 26, two hours before Davis read his statement, made reference to the outside report by Bob Sheldon of Dacula, which I received subsequently.
Sheldon said he found the Calls Creek plant in disrepair and that the problems, including faulty maintenance of equipment, had persisted for at least a year. But he gave no indication of the reason for the dirty discharge.
Haynie was hired in August of 2015 to fix the problems at the Utility Department, and he has spoken generally about faulty operation of the plant.
At a Dec. 12, 2015, tour of the plant organized by Haynie, Wastewater Operator Paul Ludwig said the membranes were not properly maintained during the period leading up to the Sheldon report.
Haynie put the blame at the Commissioner meeting on Wednesday directly on the membranes.
The membranes serve as the clarifiers in the existing plant, Haynie said.
A clarifier is used to remove solid particulates or suspended solids from liquid.
Haynie said the screens leading to the membranes failed, and the membranes became clogged and could not do their job.
Haynie showed the commissioners a picture of those clogged membranes and jokingly said “these are some of the better days.”
Extent Of Problem
No one has said how long the plant operated under the failed membrane condition, though Sheldon’s report suggested it could have been a year.
I have been told by people with knowledge of the plant operation during that time that the plant functioned properly during the day because the staff reprocessed the water until it was clear but that the plant discharged dirty water at night, when the plant was unstaffed.
Somehow, the records submitted to EPD never reflected the problem, though sampling is supposed to be done around the clock by self-operating devices.
The state Environmental Protection Division had informed Commission Chair Davis as early as September of 2013 and again in November and December of 2014 of problems at both of the county’s sewage treatment facilities, including issues of routine and required record keeping.
The EPD reports also identified problems relating to the way samples were drawn.
Haynie said the membranes produce high quality water, but they “are kind of a Ferrari, if you will. They are very persnickety.”
The county experienced “fouling” of the membranes when the screens broke down, he said.
“Everybody remembers the videos and the newspaper articles,” he said.
“These membranes did a great job, as we kept them running, on clarification,” he said. “These are wonderful for drinking water...They need some more improvement for wastewater.”
Haynie’s comments about the problems with the membranes start at 5 minutes in the video below.
Calls Creek Ready To Go
Haynie told the Commission that it should move quickly on the Calls Creek plant because it is the fastest solution to the crisis of capacity before the county.
He said a new plant could be operating in 12 to 18 months if the Commission gives him the go-ahead in April, as he is hoping is the case.
He reviewed the decision he inherited initially to expand only to 1 million gallons per day and his subsequent recommendation to go to 1.5 million gallons per day.
The new plant would be on property east of the existing plant that the county already owns.
The diagrams here and below show that land, the existing plant, the proposed 1 million upgrade that was approved back in 2008 but never put into place, and his current plan.
Click on any of these to enlarge it.
Haynie’s explanation and justification of the current plan is at the front of the video above.
Chris Thomas, Haynie’s predecessor, had come before the Board of Commissioners on Nov. 20, 2008, to make the case for an upgrade of the Calls Creek plant from its existing .667 mgd to 1 mgd, arguing that demand called for the expansion.
Chris Thomas, who is not related to Commissioner Mark Thomas, proposed continued use of membranes for the filtration process.
The Board approved that action at its meeting on Dec. 2, 2008, at which time it restricted all use of new sewer capacity to commercial development.
At Haynie’s urging, the BOC has changed that policy so that 40 percent of total capacity is for residential use, 40 percent is for commercial use, and 20 percent is for industrial use.
At present, all of the residential use, under this formula, has been allocated, according to Haynie.
During that discussion back in 2008, then Commissioner Chuck Horton had asked whether the county could buy back some of the unused capacity it had sold to developers as a way to reduce the demand on the plant, and County Attorney Daniel Haygood indicated the county could do that.
Haynie told the county’s Industrial Development Authority last year he had proposed to then Chairman Davis repurchasing capacity as a way to address the problem before the county and that he was told by Davis not to do that.
In an email exchange last October, Haygood told me that “the county may elect to refund any capacity charge where the developer has not connected to the system within three years of the initial payment. The refund terminates the developers right to claim capacity.”
Haygood said that “While there is no specific procedure set forth, I think a resolution by the BOC would be sufficient to start the process.”
I had put the video of the work session between Chris Thomas and the BOC on the Oconee County Observation Vimeo site back in 2008, but I rendered it again today in an effort to improve quality and uploaded it a second time.
It is below.
Calls Creek Pipeline
As I noted in my earlier post on the Wednesday work session of the BOC, most of the attention was on the possibility of putting a plant on the Middle Oconee River, rather than expanding the Calls Creek plant beyond 1.5 mgd.
|Original 1 MGD Plan|
Haynie did say that expanding beyond 1.5 mgd is an option for the future given that land is available and neighbors accept the plant.
Expanding the Calls Creek plant beyond 1.5 mgd has resulted in vocal opposition from residents along Calls Creek, who don’t want a pipeline down the creek and through their yards.
The state has said that the county cannot discharge more than 1.5 mgd of treated wastewater directly into Calls Creek, and the pipeline down the creek would allow the county to get that discharge to the larger Middle Oconee River, where the state has said it would be allowed.
A sewage plant has operated at its current location just north of Watkinsville on Calls Creek since 1982, and before that time raw sewage from Watkinsville was dumped into a tributary of Calls Creek, Jimmy Parker, former county engineer and now consultant to the Utility Department, told the BOC on Wednesday.
|Proposed 1.5 MGD Plan|
Residents have grown accustomed to the plant, with many saying they were even unaware of its existence until surveyors appeared in their yards and the controversy involving the pipeline surfaced.
None of the residents came forward to complain publicly about the discharge of only partially treated sewage water during the period, likely as long as a year or more, when the plant was malfunctioning, or even after I posted the video and stories appeared about the issue in area newspapers.
Expanding the Calls Creek plant beyond 1.5 mgd got a setback on Wednesday, however, when Parker told Haynie and the BOC that the collection system in place that feeds the plant cannot handle much beyond the 1.5 mgd level.
Parker told me in an email message yesterday that the proposed Epps Bridge Parkway/Daniells Bridge Road upgrade Haynie wants to undertake in the next few months will include a 12-inch force main.
That 12-inch line served by a pump at Epps Bridge Parkway near Kohl’s will will have a maximum capacity of approximately 2.25 million gallons per day, Parker said.
So the county would have to expand that line again to handle the sewage that would flow to a 3 mgd plant.