For The Record

Columbus water utility loses court bid to exceed state pollution limits

By: - April 28, 2022 4:47 pm

Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Maureen Gottfried denied the utility’s appeal Wednesday, but she also expressed unease with what she called “the lack of fairness and transparency on the part of the EPD.” Photo courtesy of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

A superior court judge has rejected a middle Georgia public utility’s latest legal challenge in a years-long fight against stricter pollution limits, but she did so reluctantly.

The Columbus Water Works is objecting to new pollution limits on the amount of fecal coliform bacteria it can release from the city’s sewer system into the Chattahoochee River and its popular whitewater rafting course.

The public utility’s costly legal fight has left a state-issued permit in limbo for years, and an end may still not be in sight.

This week’s ruling is another setback for the utility, which is challenging the state Environmental Protection Division’s decision to issue the permit in late 2020.

An administrative law judge upheld the state agency’s decision late last year, and Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Maureen Gottfried denied the utility’s appeal Wednesday. But Gottfried also expressed unease with what she called “the lack of fairness and transparency on the part of the EPD.”

“This Court is very aware of, and concerned with, the fact that the changes now being required apparently should have been a requirement of the (long-term control plan) from the beginning,” Gottfried wrote in her ruling.

Imposing the pollution limits now will “cost Columbus, and its ratepayers, a significant amount of money,” Gottfried wrote. And she concluded it was “disingenuous at best” for the state to argue a utility should be able to make such modifications when the pollution limit at the center of the dispute should have been required sooner. 

The utility has long argued the state changed the rules after the Columbus Water Works spent $100 million in the 1990s to develop a federally required long-term plan to control sewage overflows in its combined system, which funnels rainwater runoff and sewage through the same pipe.

Overflows can happen in these combined sewer systems after heavy rain events, occasionally allowing untreated wastewater to spill into waterways.

The utility has said it would cost more than $10 million to modify its system to comply with the new permit. A spokesman said Thursday the utility’s board of commissioners would weigh whether to pursue the matter further with the state Court of Appeals.

“EPD’s new requirements are simply unfair and unlawful,” Vic Burchfield, senior vice president of the Columbus Water Works, said in a statement. “This is not about protecting the river. Columbus’ stretch of the Chattahoochee River is clean. CWW’s system is working to protect water quality. Years of data demonstrate this.”

State regulators have said end-of-pipe pollution limits are needed because of the potential for the utility to discharge untreated domestic sewage into the river.

Chris Held, an attorney with the Attorney General’s Office, argued last month that the state has an obligation to the public to fix the past omission.

“EPD left something out that it should have included before and made a mistake in the past, and it has a responsibility under the law and a responsibility to the people of Columbus, and anyone else who wants to use that waterway, to correct that error going forward,” Held said at a hearing held virtually in March.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which helped defend the stricter permit in court, celebrated the judge’s decision Thursday.

“For decades, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has advocated for clean water through transparent monitoring and proper treatment of wastewater discharges across the basin,” said Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth.

“We are pleased that the Muscogee County Superior Court agrees that CWW must do what every other permittee in Georgia does and comply with discharge limits for the amount of bacteria it sends to the river,” he added. “Upholding this permit advances our mission to protect the health and safety of everyone recreating in this heavily used stretch of the river.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.