The state is expected to fine the city of Atlanta for not properly reporting an April raw sewage spill and possibly other major spills that have occurred at Peachtree Creek in west Buckhead.
On April 19, the spill, estimated by a resident's consulting engineers at 1.2 million gallons, took place in the neighborhood of Ridgewood Circle and Ridgewood Road, both of which have houses whose back yards border Peachtree Creek. Also, some Ridgewood Circle homes’ back yards border Nancy Creek. The neighborhood is a stone’s throw from the city’s R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Center, one of the city’s wastewater treatment facilities and located near where Peachtree and Nancy creeks intersect.
Clayton receives influent flows from the combined stormwater and sanitary sewer collection systems and collects and treats the sewage before releasing water into the Chattahoochee River. But during heavy rains, the aging system can be overwhelmed, causing backups and combined sewer overflows in the neighborhood that can result in major spills (30,000 gallons or more) like the one in April.
Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which monitors the state’s municipal sewer systems, confirmed it is investigating reports of spills there.
“Any decision regarding a monetary penalty would not be made until the investigation is completed,” he said. “There is no timeline to finish the investigation.”
One neighborhood resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said the April spill is one of several that have occurred in the past two years and on a regular basis in the 20 years the resident has lived there. The resident said an even bigger issue is the pattern of repeated spills that have wreaked havoc on Peachtree Creek.
“Seeing the way the city is handling its sewer system and mistreating its creek is really the problem here,” the resident said. “The neighborhood association, Paces Civic, it’s the largest highest zoning contiguous remaining neighborhood in the city (R-1 and R-2), having the largest lots. Because of that we’re paying the highest land value per lot in the city other than central Buckhead. We have all these creeks and rivers and a huge tree canopy. We want them preserved.”
In the city’s defense, the property where the April spill occurred is on a cliff, so that made gaining access difficult, another anonymous source said.
The resident said the Clayton plant and the rest of the city’s sewer system is not equipped to handle the demands hard rains place on it.
“We have this CSO (combined sewer overflow) system, with different layers, stormwaters, sewers and those combine underground,” the resident said. “When the stormwater runs into the sewer, they overflow. Even the Nancy Creek tunnel is not large enough for those overflows.”
Mary Norwood, a former Atlanta City Council member and mayoral candidate who today chairs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, said she’s concerned about the issue. She said she plans to schedule a meeting with District 8 Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who chairs the council’s utilities committee and represents part of Buckhead, about it.
“There are tremendous problems at R.M. Clayton where Peachtree Creek and Nancy Creek intersect,” she said.
Matzigkeit said he has not yet met with Norwood about the Ridgewood sewer problems but is aware of them.
“This is a complex issue," he said. "It goes back several years."
The resident said there are long-term concerns over the health of Peachtree Creek in that neighborhood.
“What we say is the creek is dead,” the resident said. “It used to be green. The bottom was lush. Years ago kids would play in it. Now it smells like sewage. ... It’s killed all the animal life in the creek. Nothing can live in the creek, and invasive species have taken over surrounding the creek. Highway runoff and stormwater from Buckhead development have caused creek bank erosion as well. The creek bank was 80 feet wide and now it’s 140 to 200 feet.
“We’ve lost 30 to 40 feet of creek bank, 12 or 15 feet high. It’s been estimated by our engineers that over 500,000 cubic feet of dirt, plus trees and filtration, has been washed away. The United States Geological Survey points out Peachtree Creek is one of the worst examples of overdevelopment damage or erosion in the country.”
The resident also said funds from the city’s 1% municipal option sales tax (MOST), which has paid for over $700 million in sewer system facilities and maintenance since 2004 as part of Atlanta’s compliance with a federal consent decree that mandates the city adheres to state and federal laws with its system, should be spent wisely and the Ridgewood area problem should be prioritized. The tax is up for a four-year renewal via a voter referendum in 2020.
The resident said in addition to the April spill, another estimated conservatively by engineers at 600,000 gallons occurred in late December, adding a 2015 spill of 360,000 gallons into Peachtree Creek due to a pipe failure was misreported as being in Nancy Creek. Residents have posted videos of some spills on YouTube (visit https://bit.ly/2QtBQ2Z) and provided them as well as photos to the EPD when it asked the state to investigate the problem.
Residents and the neighborhood have begun offering to the city solutions to the problem that has developed there, including public and foundation funding, the resident said.
The Neighbor has learned the city claimed the video and photographic evidence may have been doctored. But Christina Cruz-Benton, an Atlanta Department of Watershed Management spokesperson, said, “No assumptions were made by (the department) regarding the origin or authenticity of the video.”
Cruz-Benton said a resident did notify the city of the April spill and was provided video evidence of it by the EPD Oct. 17.
“The exact cause of the alleged spill is unknown,” she said. “However, based on rain data for the area during the timeframe, it is likely that the wastewater plant reached hydraulic capacity, pumps were throttled back causing the tunnel to fill, subsequently resulting in a hydraulic overload. The department’s Office of Linear Infrastructure Operations was unable to meet with the resident and investigate the location further until April 20. At that time, the sewer manholes that are located within the vicinity of the location were inspected. Staff did not observe an active sewer spill at the location.”
An Oct. 28 letter from Atlanta Department of Watershed Management Kishia Powell to Marzieh Shahazaz, municipal compliance manager for the EPD's watershed protection branch, a copy of which was obtained by the Neighbor, mentions a department representative went to the spill site April 20 but did not see a spill there. Powell also wrote that the department did not have knowledge of any videos recorded on the spill date and had not seen them yet.
"In light of these videos from the homeowner, that were only recently received (from the EPD), we are reporting a spill out of an abundance of caution. However, (the department) cannot confirm the authenticity of the videos or photos, including what is shown occurred on April 19, 2019," Powell wrote.
Cruz-Benton said the department got another complaint April 23 regarding a sewer main backup in that area, and it was inspected and identified as a broken manhole and repaired.
Regarding the April spill, she said, “Compliance and responsiveness to address all customers’ issues and concerns are extremely important to the department. In an abundance of caution, on Oct. 28, (the department) reported the April 19th spill to EPD in accordance with requirements for spills reporting.”
After the Neighbor’s article was posted online, Cruz-Benton sent the Neighbor a statement in response.
“The Department of Watershed Management is dedicated to ensuring treatment and delivery of high quality drinking water, collection and reclamation of wastewater to a high standard and managing the impacts of stormwater. Recognizing that the system dates back to the late 1800s, (the department) has focused on infrastructure upgrades – having spent over $2 billion in projects over the last 20 years resulting in a significant reduction in spill volume.
“Additionally, the 1% municipal sewer option sales tax (MOST) has helped to stave off a 25% increase in water and sewer rates. With the help of MOST revenues, the city has been able to repair and replace old sewer lines – 375 miles of small sewer rehabilitation and 57 square miles of capacity relief. DWM remains committed to protecting its customers and the environment.”