State calls for Valdosta to pay six-figure fine for spilling sewage in river

    Sara Jones with the Suwannee Riverkeeper prepares to test the water at the Withlacoochee River following a December sewage spill. A Georgia Environmental Protection Division consent order calls for the city of Valdosta to pay a $122,000 fine for sewage spills and permit violations. Scotti Jones

    The city of Valdosta is facing a $122,000 fine for spilling raw sewage into a creek that flows into a south Georgia river that runs downstream into Florida’s Suwannee River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.  

    The proposed settlement with the state’s Environmental Protection Division is for spills and permit violations dating back from April 2014 through December, most recently 7.5 million gallons released in the waterway that the city blames on a contractor. Environmentalists posted the latest consent order and say it should be a wakeup call for the city to better manage its wastewater system to prevent water contamination along the Withlacoochee River and other streams.

    Along with the fine, the order also calls for the city to update its wastewater treatment procedures, provide weekly stream monitoring reports and notify the public of spills more promptly.

    The deadline for the public to submit comments to the EPD on the proposed settlement is May 27.

    “The December 2019 spill was the biggest yet, with no rain, and nothing actually broke. It was a massive failure of supervision,” said Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman. “Citizens and elected and appointed officials in Georgia and a dozen counties in Florida demanded something be done.”

    Health officials downstream warned the public about coming in contact with the water after the December spill, which was blamed for causing fish kills.

    “I commend EPD for doing an order that’s better than I expected, better than a lot of people expected” Quarterman said. “There’s still room for improvement.”  

    The city was nearing the end of a five-year consent order with state environmental regulators for prior spills when a contractor’s mistake caused the December spill, Valdosta City Manager Mark Barber said.

    The city takes responsibility for the spill and taxpayers will pay the fine from the system’s late fees and reconnection fees, Barber said. 

    “Much of the EPD consent order is what we were already doing before, like inflow and infiltration, keeping stormwater out of our sewers,” he said.

    The city invested more than $100 million into its water system in recent years, including building a new Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant that opened in 2016.

    “Just because we’ve got the consent order doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to pump millions of dollars into our system,” Barber said. “We’re like a lot of older municipalities in the fact that we have a lot of aging infrastructure all around our city so the last three, four years, we’ve worked really hard to get in that direction of replacing everything for the most part.”

    You can comment on the consent order by Wednesday, May 27, 2020, to:

    Mr. Lewis Hays, Manager, Watershed Compliance, Georgia Environmental Protection Division

    2 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SE, Suite 1152 East, Atlanta, GA 30334

    [email protected] 

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.