County mired in pollution dispute

Published 3:59 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Some toilet paper and a plastic bottle filled with water from the Flint River have created a big problem for Decatur County commissioners.

Those items were what the Georgia Environmental Protection Division found in the river when they visited Decatur County in Spring 2008 in response to a citizen’s report that raw sewage was apparently finding its way to the river.

The EPD responded by ordering the county government to clean up the river or face significant fines and the possible loss of the county’s permit to operate its water treatment plant at the industrial park off U.S. 27 North, according to county officials.

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Two years later, after extensive negotiation between county officials and EPD officials, county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to enter into a revised consent order. While the county is not being found liable for the river pollution or admitting to any wrongdoing, the consent order stipulates the county pay a $15,000 fine and take steps to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant.

While the allegations of the river pollution are just coming to public light, county commissioners have been privy to the details of the problem and attempts to resolve the matter.

Among those efforts was County Administrator Tom Patton’s procurement of attorney Bob Lovatt of Macon, Ga., to represent the county in the EPD negotiations. Lovatt was paid a total of $32,000 over the two-year period on the approval of Patton, who said he had hired the attorney based on the recommendation of two of the county’s consulting engineers, Stacy Watkins and Steve Harbin.

Watkins, who is the principal of Watkins and Associates of Tifton, Ga., advises the county on engineering matters related to its wastewater treatment plant, which is about 30 years old and while still functional, is badly in need of upgrades, according to Patton.

Harbin, the principal of Macon-based Harbin Engineering, advises the county on landfill matters and knew of Lovatt’s experience in working with the EPD through consulting with other counties.

However, Patton’s decision to hire an outside attorney instead of having salaried County Attorney Brown Moseley represent the county has proved controversial. While Patton told The Post-Searchlight his hiring of Lovatt falls within county policies allowing the county manager to procure professional services without coming before commissioners, County Commission Chairman Butch Mosely said Tuesday he was previously unaware Lovatt had been hired and paid the amount that he was.

Patton said the ongoing EPD negotiations had been discussed in commissioners’ closed sessions, including one in February that Lovatt was present at to advise commissioners about the consent order that was agreed upon Tuesday.

“[Former Commission Chairman Palmer] Rich attended all of the meetings we had with EPD in Atlanta,” Patton said after Tuesday morning’s meeting. “There were no secrets. When there was a decision point to be made, all commissioners were informed.”

However, during the meeting, current Chairman Mosely had a different opinion.

“Whether it was intentional or not, there was an effort to keep me in the dark,” said Mosely, who was first elected to the commission in 2004. “I was told by another commissioner that the reason they didn’t want me to know about it because they thought I would tell [County Attorney Moseley] about it. He has a reputation for sometimes firing hot and they were worried that if he represented us, he might get crossed up with the EPD lawyers.”

Citizens criticizes commissioners

The matter of the river pollution and EPD negotiations drew sharply critical comments from local businessman Terry Ellis, who spoke during the meeting’s public participation agenda item.

Ellis cited an EPD administrative order dated March 29, 2010, which stated the EPD had found buildup of sludge and solids in the wastewater treatment plant’s equalization basin and floating scum, solids and sludge in the wet well that empties into the Flint River. He accused county officials, particularly Patton, of covering up the water pollution investigation.

In response to Ellis’ comments, in which he called the county administrator a liar and called for him to be fired, Patton said he planned to consult with a lawyer about possibly suing Ellis for slander.

After the meeting, in his office, Patton defended county officials’ resistance of the EPD’s consent order for two years.

The primary reason the county did not accept the EPD’s initial consent order was one of principle: According to Patton, the county’s own independent sampling of the water it put into the river showed it was not polluted. In fact, soon after the EPD first contacted the county about the allegations, sewer engineers hired by the county uncovered an illegal tap into the pipe that carries processed water from the wastewater treatment plant into the Flint River.

A camera had been placed in the line to check on any possible contamination issues because county officials believed the treatment plant was not the source, Patton recalled. With the help of the camera, the county discovered that raw sewage from a near by riverfront home was being flushed into the county’s water line.

Patton said the tap, which utilized two 55-gallon drums with holes cut into the bottom, had been made in the early 1960s, at a time the federal government didn’t regulate dumping of contaminants into rivers—although it was still done without the county’s knowledge or consent. The current homeowner was not aware of the tap and the tap was sealed off with concrete once it was discovered, by virtue of the county owning an easement along the length of its water pipe, according to Patton.

Patton said he has no doubt that the illegal tap was the source of the alleged polluted water that EPD officials observed in May-June 2008, before the tap was cut off. However, the EPD also reported it observed polluted water on a follow-up visit in March 2009. In dispute was whether or not foamy river water observed by EPD was the result of polluted water coming from the wastewater plant, another source or from high water flows resulting from flooding associated with Tropical Storm Fay, which deluged the southeastern United States in late August 2008.

The agreed-upon consent order’s states that Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ officials observed particulate matter, scum and solids exiting the county’s effluent discharge pipe at 456 Flint River Road and entering the Flint River between June 25-27, 2008, and on March 26, 2009. The EPD discounted the county’s alternative explanation for the water’s appearance and added they had noted numerous deficiencies in the operation of the wastewater treatment plant. On April 9, 2009, the EPD informed Decatur County that the plant “is not operating in such a manner as to adequately treat wastewater and prevent water quality violations from occurring…”

Patton questioned the manner and protocol in which EPD had conducted its investigations. He said the actual end of the county’s processed water pipe is located six to eight feet underwater. Through its own hiring of an independent, third party to sample the water at an above-ground site 600 feet from the pipe’s terminus, the county determined it was putting out “good, clean” water that was well within regulatory standards.

“The EPD did their own sampling, unannounced, from portals they control,” Patton said. “The water sample they showed to us as their ‘evidence’ in Atlanta was water they had scooped up in a Snapple bottle.”

“The bottom line is that the wastewater treatment plant is functional and operational and puts out water that is cleaner than the river water it’s being poured into,” Patton said.

As a result of the extensive negotiations with EPD, Decatur County is facing less harsh penalties than it would have under the initially proposed consent order, according to county officials.

The first consent order proposed a $25,000 fine and an ongoing fine of $1,200 per month “until the problem was fixed.” The problem was that the proposed upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant would take at least three years to do, which would have incurred a $68,000 fine if the county had accepted the first consent order.

The EPD had also proposed taking away the permit for discharge of water from the county’s wastewater treatment plant, which would have effectively shut down commercial water use at the industrial park, Patton said. In addition, the county could not have afforded the debt service on the $3 million estimated cost to upgrade the treatment plant in 2008, according to County Finance Director Carl Rowland.

Rowland said the county has applied for a federal economic development grant worth about $1.5 million. The balance of the plant upgrades will probably be borrowed, he said.

Commissioners stressed how much they valued protecting the river.

“The river is one of our greatest treasures and assets,” Commissioner Mosely said. “I want the problem fixed even if we have to borrow to do the corrective action.”

Commissioner Russell Smith said he understood that financing issues had prevented the county from upgrading the treatment plant even before the EPD got involved. But now that the county had access to funding, fixing the problems should take high priority, Smith said.

“I’m concerned that if we have a prospective business that knows about our situation and if they see we don’t have an upgraded treatment plant, then they’re not going to come.”

Consent Order (PDF, 236 KB)