For The Record

State judge sides with EPD on tougher limits for dumping sewage into Chattahoochee

By: - September 15, 2021 8:10 pm

Environmentalists praised the decision as a win for the Chattahoochee River and the tens of thousands of people who fish, boat and swim there. Photo courtesy of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

A state judge has ruled against a middle Georgia water utility that has spent years waging a costly battle against a state permit requiring tougher water quality standards.

Judge Ronit Walker, an administrative law judge, backed state regulators’ decision to issue a permit last year imposing stricter limits on the amount of pollution that can flow from the Columbus sewer system into a popular stretch of the Chattahoochee River.

The permit would not take effect until 10 days after the ruling, which was issued Tuesday. The water utility may also choose to challenge the administrative law judge’s decision in state Superior Court.

The Columbus Water Works has pointed to the cost to comply with the new water quality standards – including a new limit on fecal coliform bacteria – as a factor in its long-standing objections to the permit. Its previous permit expired in 2015.

The utility argues the state is changing the rules after it 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.

Judge Ronit Walker, an administrative law judge, sided with EPD and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in a dispute over the Columbus Water Works’ state permit. Photo from the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings

But the judge ruled that these steps taken 24 years ago do not “permanently shield Columbus from instituting modifications as required to comply with the (Clean Water Act.)”

Walker concluded the state Environmental Protection Division was reasonable for imposing limits that anticipated the potential for pollution to exceed water quality standards.

Federal policy also is clear, Walker added, that utilities should design controls so that expansion or retrofitting can be done without great expense.

Vic Burchfield, senior vice president of the Columbus Water Works, said Wednesday the utility is disappointed in the decision and is reviewing its options before deciding its next move.

“We believe the revised permit requirements will place a costly and unnecessary burden on Columbus Water Works customers without improving water quality in the river,” Burchfield said. “Columbus Water Works has 25 years of water quality data from samples taken on the river proving that our system works and is not a major source of bacteria in the water.

“We have been strong advocates and partners for keeping our river clean, but we believe this is the wrong approach and puts an unfair and unlawful burden on Columbus Water Works customers who have already invested over $100 million in a system that continues to be effective in protecting the river today,” he added.

Environmentalists praised the decision as a win for the Chattahoochee River and the tens of thousands of people who fish, boat and swim there. Downtown Columbus is a popular whitewater rafting destination.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an advocacy group focused on protecting the river from pollution, joined state regulators in arguing for the stronger permit. The group was represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has long advocated for transparent monitoring and robust treatment of wastewater discharges in Columbus and across the basin,” said Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth.

“(The Columbus Water Works) had the only wastewater permit in the state that did not have limits on the amount of bacteria discharged into a river. This new permit put an end to that to protect the health and safety of everyone recreating on this 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.