Each month the city of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management files discharge monitoring reports with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to comply with the 1998 and 1999 federal consent decrees requiring the city to overhaul its combined and separated water/sewer systems, respectively, at a cost of $2 billion.
Each quarter, it also files those reports with the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the plaintiffs in the case, including the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which sued the city over raw sewage polluting the river.
The reports include the number of combined sewer overflows each of the city’s creeks have, including those in Buckhead. But one local resident familiar with the system said the reports the department files with the city council are not accurate, and that the department has changed its definition of what a combined sewer overflow is to make its sewer system seem better than it really is.
This winter, Buckhead resident Justin Wiedeman, a registered professional engineer and a certified public accountant, was asked by Post 2 at-large Councilwoman Mary Norwood to review a January audit report on the city’s $770 million combined sewer overflow system the city released. Wiedeman had worked for the city as a consultant for then-department Commissioner Jack Ravan as it implemented its Clean Water Atlanta Project.
The audit, conducted by City Auditor Leslie Ward, stated the city had only two overflows since late 2008, when two combined sewer overflow projects were completed. But Wiedeman said according to his calculations, there were 31 overflows just in 2013.
“The city auditor stated in her report to city council that the [combined sewer overflow] tunnel and treatment system is effectively outperforming the requirements of regulatory authorities when in fact, it was significantly under-performing the requirements, to the detriment of our neighborhoods,” he said.
Wiedeman said he believes the city changed its definition of a combined sewer overflow in order to report more favorable numbers to the city council, by omitting a portion of the definition as written in the combined sewer consent decree.
“The 31 overflows are significant, in addition to exceeding the criteria in the consent decree, the overflows volumes are very large and consist of undertreated and untreated sewage from Midtown, Atlantic Station and portions of downtown as it relates to Buckhead,” he said. “The 2013 system wide total volume of overflows to city creeks from the [combined sewer overflow] system reported by the city in quarterly reports totaled approximately 700 million gallons. As population and use in these areas increases, this becomes more problematic. The overflow volume to Buckhead area creeks in 2013 was approximately 500 million gallons.
“The public has the right to know about overflows from the combined sewer system to creeks in our community.”
In a statement issued by the EPD but on behalf of both it and the EPA, they said, “The Georgia EPD and the EPA are aware of the allegations regarding the city of Atlanta’s management of their [combined sewer overflows]. EPD and EPA have discussed the issue, and with legal guidance, have concluded the city is in compliance with the requirements of its current [combined sewer overflow] permit.”
He said he hopes to meet with council members and department leaders soon to give his side of the story, and council members interviewed said they are working to set up that meeting soon.
Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina said she is aware of Wiedeman’s claims and met with him in June.
“But he has not shown us anything, any documents to really explain what his disagreement is,” she said.
When asked if the city changed its definition of a combined sewer overflow, Macrina said no.
“There are a lot of documents that are related to this and there are some documents that may not have the same information but that does not mean the definition has changed,” she said. “We have always been clear with our definition of an overflow, a spill, a permitted discharge and an unpermitted discharge.
“There are a lot of terms that if you don’t work in this industry and you’re not familiar with what we do, it can be very confusing when you’re dealing with all of those different definitions.”
Macrina also said department leaders are willing to meet with Wiedeman to discuss the issue.
“We have complied with all of the regulations and have been successful in complying with the two consent decrees and stay very close with the state regulatory industries who have both agreed that we are doing what we need to do. I want to make sure the public and residents and ratepayers of the city of Atlanta have every confidence in us. [Deputy Commissioner] Margaret [Tanner] and I and everyone else in the department have been in this industry for decades. We know our business and take it very seriously. Whenever someone like Mr. Wiedeman comes forward with questions, we are more than happy to sit down with them and explain them to them.”
Council members react
City council members interviewed by the Neighbor said they hope to get more information on Wiedeman’s allegations when they and the department leaders meet in the future.
District 5 Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong is chairwoman of the city utilities committee, which normally meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month.
“I’ve heard about this from [Wiedeman] but I have yet to receive the substantiation of [his claims],” Archibong said.
District 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore represents part of Buckhead. Her district also includes Proctor Creek, one waterway where combined sewer overflows have occurred in the past.
“I think that certainly we need to find out if [Wiedeman’s allegations are] valid and if so we need to know so we can address the issue,” Moore said. “Proctor Creek runs through several densely and well-established neighborhoods. There may be water that needs to be cleaned up. We need to be clear on what the real numbers are. Have any overflows affected it over and beyond in terms of how it’s being calculated? …
“I’m looking forward to some discussion and resolution on that. I think it’s important to the residents as well as the city.”
District 8 Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, who represents part of Buckhead, said, “He obviously has a keen interest in this and a right as a citizen to pursue it and my job is to make people and information available to him.”
Norwood said she could not give an opinion on Wiedeman’s claims but hoped he can meet with the city’s engineers, including those from the Department of Watershed Management, to discuss the issue.
“I think we need to understand this issue is very technical and you need engineers talking with engineers,” she said. “Engineers work from principles and data. Principles don’t change and then you look at the data and understanding the data will agree. The interpretation of this data is or is not correct. I grew up as the daughter of a chemical engineer [Bill Bush]. If the engineers get involved, With Justin’s concerns, the city and Justin should get together and work through why there is a difference in opinion.
“What can the city do? … There are still issues to be resolved. We had a tremendous amount of rain the past two years. I just want everybody agreeing on what the city needs to be doing because it’s very important not only to have clean water in the Chattahoochee but to have clean water in the creeks that are in our citizen’s backyards.”
Sally Bethea, the riverkeeper’s executive director, said the city is complying with the organization protecting the river in its quarterly reports, adding the organization is pleased with the progress the city has made in overhauling its sewer system.
She said the riverkeeper was not aware of Wiedeman’s claims until a reporter emailed them, with supporting documents, to her.
“We have no knowledge of that,” Bethea said. “The city can’t change anything unilaterally in the consent decree.”
She forwarded the email to the riverkeeper’s technical team and plans to respond to Wiedeman’s allegations after it reviews them.