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EPD relies on local systems to check spills
By Christopher Schwarzen The Macon Telegraph March 20, 2000
The state Environmental Protection Division says it lacks the necessary resources to investigate every sewage spill in Georgia.
Because of this, it relies on sewage permit holders like the Macon Water Authority to self-monitor their systems and report overflows larger than 10,000 gallons, said Jeff Larson, manager of the EPD's permitting, compliance and enforcement program.
There are three main methods of repairing sewerage. Costs for each vary, depending on size of line and location. Here's a look at each:
A broken line can be totally removed and replaced. This is often the most expensive way, because while that line is closed, a temporary line must be installed. This usually requires pumping sewage around the construction area.
A method called slip-lining means taking another line and pulling it through the old line. This will decrease the pipe's diameter and flow capacity, but newer materials, such as polyethylene, are slicker than concrete pipes so sewage flow is unrestricted, overcoming the loss of diameter. This is often the most popular method because of cost.
A third method is called cured-in-place. Workers put a liner in a cracked pipe and fill the pipe with water. With the pipe full, a chemical compound is injected into the cracks, filling them. The material is then set by hot water or steam. The inside liner is then removed. This method does not lower pipe diameter, but tends to be more expensive than slip-lining.
"We would always like to have more resources. It's not a secret that's something we're struggling with," Larson said. "The more people and positions we have, the more we can canvass the area."
About 25 people work out of the Atlanta office, which reports to the Water Protection Branch, said branch chief Allan Hallum. There are also five regional offices with at least three or four employees each, but they respond not only to water issues, but land and air issues as well, Hallum said.
The governor's budget this year identifies 30 new positions for the Water Protection Branch, Hallum said, but not all of those will work in compliance.
That makes it difficult for staffers to track the 1,100 state-permitted sewage operations.
"We try to, with major facilities, deal with those on an annual basis with an inspection," Hallum said.
Larson said his office often investigates spills reported by outside complainants or if there is a large environmental impact. If the state believes an authority is falsifying documents, that also sparks an investigation.
Last year, the EPD investigated a Macon spill at Castlewood Drive because someone other than the Macon Water Authority initially reported it. The investigation led to a $7,500 fine for six major overflows during 1999.
This year, one of three major overflows reported by the water authority has been investigated, Larson said. Regional officers conducted a study of the Lake Wildwood overflow. The state is considering action for the overflow, said Jim Sommerville, a supervisor in the permitting, compliance and enforcement office.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency says Georgia's EPD is doing a good job as a watchdog. The federal Clean Water Act, which both organizations regulate, was written with self-monitoring in mind.
"The EPA relies on self-monitoring, too" said Mike McGhee, the EPA's Region 4 water management branch chief. "But there is also a checks and balances system to help it work."
McGhee said both the EPA and EPD have criminal investigation divisions working to catch anyone falsifying sewage reports. The EPA office prosecutes about a dozen cities or property owners in Region 4 annually over fraud charges. Region 4 covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The EPA has 10 regions.
Falsifying reports can lead to fine or jail
If convicted, a guilty party can be forced to pay a fine or serve jail time. That's enough to keep most utilities straight, McGhee said.
"We find out eventually," McGhee said. "Usually someone rats on them, either a disgruntled employee or another employee with moral standards."
Georgia also stepped up its compliance effort last year with its zero-tolerance program, McGhee said. Used in Atlanta, the program requires any overflow to be reported, usually accompanied by a fine. The EPD is considering expanding the program to other parts of the state, EPD officials have said.
It has taken time to teach water utilities how to use their sewage discharge permits, Hallum said. In 1974, the state pushed to permit all sewage facilities and educate local officials about requirements, he said.
By 1985, the state began enforcing the permits. During the next five years it issued many violations, Hallum said.
"But now the problems deal with aging infrastructure, not plant violations," Hallum said. "The operators are knowledgable, and they know the drawbacks to fraud."
The Macon Water Authority knows it must quickly report a spill. It reports some overflows as major spills even when it isn't sure the spill is that big, said water authority executive director Gene Holcomb.
The water authority believes a spill at Bass Road and another at Kensington Drive almost two weeks ago may not be as large as first suspected. Larson said the state will consider downsizing them if enough evidence is produced.
"In those cases, when flow is not known, we recommend that they report it as over 10,000 gallons," Larson said.
The water authority is working to reduce its overflows, Holcomb said. A private engineering firm will begin inspecting manholes and sewage lines in the Rocky Creek and Walnut Creek basins running through Bibb County. That information will be used to repair decrepit lines.
Eventually, the water authority will do the same with its sewerage in five other basins: Swift Creek, Sabbath Creek, Tobesofkee Creek, Wolf Creek and Echeconee Creek.
"We have some lines that are more than 100 years old," Holcomb said. "Most spills are caused by pipe age and poor installation."
Macon authority maintains 700 miles of sewerage
The water authority, formed in 1974 by combining the Bibb County Water and Sewage Authority and Macon's water board, has more than 700 miles of sewerage and approximately 12,000 manholes to maintain. That includes 21 miles of sewerage in Lake Wildwood. The water authority took over the neighborhood of about 1,500 homes 10 years ago.
"The last big expansion of the system was in 1962, a big annexation project," Holcomb said. "They chose concrete (pipes) for that."
The oldest lines are steel. Before 1962, however, most sewage pipes were made of clay. Clay lines often last longer than concrete. Sewer gases eat away at concrete lines. Clay withstands the gases but can break if not installed properly.
Pipes installed recently are made of PVC, a hard plastic-looking type of pipe, or ductile iron. Holcomb said they should last 100 years.
But infrastructure isn't the only problem. If people don't recognize spills, they can go on for weeks, causing health hazards and wildlife losses.
"We've never had a major overflow in the street," Holcomb said. "People see these and call right away."
Most large spills in the past have been in wooded areas not traveled by people, Holcomb said.
The one problem Macon doesn't have is a sewage system that is over capacity, Holcomb said. The system's capacity is about 45 million gallons a day. It often treats less than this, but last year's peak was 55 million gallons.
The water authority treats sewage at two plants - Rocky Creek and Poplar Street - before discharging into the Ocmulgee River.
"We don't want any spills if we can help it," Holcomb said.
The spills are costly. Besides paying a fine, the pipe must be fixed. The Lake Wildwood spill this year will require a new line at a cost of $50,000.
That money comes from residential and commercial user fees, meaning there is less money for annual maintenance.
Larson said the state usually leaves cities alone to track their own collection systems. But if problems continue, the state will take stronger action.
"If we continually see a larger degree of problems, we're going to take another look at the city's infrastructure," he said. "We're going to get a state perspective on the problem. We're going to take action if needed."
That doesn't happen very often, he said.
)2000 The Macon Telegraph Publishing Company http://www.macontel.com/local/epd0320.htm
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