Jacqueline Echols said the public needs more time to sift through the documents associated with the city of Atlanta’s sewer system permits’ renewal process before they are approved by state and federal officials, including the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

Atlanta has two permits: one for the East Area Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) facilities and another for the West Area CSO ones. It has two federal consent decrees monitoring its sewer system, with the first one overseeing its CSO facilities. The second one involves the city's shallow pipe networks.

“My experience is for these opportunities to do this every five years to gather about the permit renewal, with no follow-up. End of process,” said Echols, an environmentalist who serves as board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, which aims to protect that waterway. “Is it the intent to improve water quality in Intrenchment Creek and in the South River? If so, that success is not (possible).

“There are many questions, issues and regulatory concerns that must be resolved before this (East Area CSO) permit is renewed. I am requesting more time and would like an additional 90 days to thoroughly review the document.”

Echols was one of seven residents who spoke at the EPD’s March 30 public hearing on the permits renewal process, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those seven, four requested the EPD extend the public comment period another 90 days since the deadline to submit written comments was April 1.

The EPD originally opened public comment on its website Dec. 21 and published an ad in the Fulton County Daily Report Dec. 28 to announce individuals could submit comments through Feb. 1, and after some residents requested the comment period be extended and a public hearing also be held, it was lengthened to April 1, with the hearing set for March 30.

Each municipality’s permit is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program created by the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. The permits must be renewed every five years and require an approval process that includes a 30-day public comment period.

The current permit, dating back to 2015, expired Aug. 31 and the 2020 one was to take effect in September but was delayed, partly due to the pandemic. The Neighbor reported in July that two documents associated with the permits renewal process had incorrect information on them, and though one was fixed prior to when the public comment period, the other one had not.

Buckhead resident Bob Schreiber, a 20-year volunteer watchdog of the city’s sewer system, said more documents are incorrect, making the city’s application to renew its permits incomplete and invalid because they’re not properly signed and certified by Atlanta officials.

“The 2020 East-West CSO draft permits, which are the subject of this public hearing, are not complete and not signed-certified. This is a violation of the Clean Water Act,” he said, later adding the public needs more time to thoroughly pore through all the documents associated with the permits renewal process.

Schreiber also mentioned some issues with specific documents used in the process.

“I have some administrative issues to report. I found a new document uploaded on GEOS,” he said, referring to the EPD’s website where it posts the permits renewal documents. “It contained information that further explains inconsistencies and was dated to look as if it was added to the website before the public comment period began.

“With the West Area CSO, there’s conflicting information from the satellite connections to the Nancy Creek tunnel. How do these connect? It’s important for the public to have all this information.”

Most of the other residents who spoke talked about the pollution problems in the South River and Intrenchment Creek.

A man who said he’s a civil engineer who’s been studying the issue for four years said he’s worried about sewage overflows into the South River and Proctor Creek during heavy rains, adding the EPD’s 0.1-inch rule on the amount of sewage overflow means 98% of storms cause overflows.

“My concern with the existing storms and conditions is we’re currently allowing the smallest storms to overflow raw sewage, and if it’s not raw sewage, it’s sewage that’s been cleaned and chlorinated but is not drinkable,” he said. “… The city’s response to climate change is embarrassing.”

At the beginning of the hearing, the EPD presented several changes to each permit it’s proposing, including changes to maximum measurements for copper and lead limits. When asked by the Neighbor if those recommendations were due to specific pollution problems Atlanta’s sewer system had, Benoit Causse, the EPD’s municipal permitting unit manager, said the agency made those same proposals to all sewer systems across the state.

Audra Dickson, the EPD’s wastewater regulatory program manager, who led the hearing, said if the public comment period is extended past April 1, residents would be notified one of two ways: either through its own website or through its listserv email newsletter that anyone can sign up for. The EPD would also place another notice advertising the extension.

To view the documents online, visit http://bit.ly/3bURhLB. Then type “Atlanta” for city, “Fulton” for county and either “West Area CSO” or “East Area CSO” for facility name and click on the “Search” button.

To submit public comments, email epdcomments@dnr.ga.gov.

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