In addition, the South River Watershed Alliance is protesting the city's effort to convince the state to remove the performance requirements from the permit.
The National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division requires Atlanta's combined sewer overflow, or CSO, systems to filter a certain amount of waste before discharging water back into rivers.
Based on late 2011 watershed department reports that the environmental group obtained from the EPD, SRWA President Jackie Echols said, "You can see very clearly that they are missing the mark."
Echols told CL that discharges from the city's facility in southeast Atlanta have harmed the South River, which flows through DeKalb County into Butts County's Jackson Lake, for years. Echols says restoring the river depends heavily on reducing pollution.
Atlanta's EPD permit expired in 2010 and has been administratively extended every year since. In addition to not granting the city's wish and lifting the limits, Echols wants the EPD to complete a new draft permit for Atlanta's CSO system. The system collects both rainwater and sewage in a single tunnel.
She's also concerned because the city now wants the state to remove the pollutant limits outlined in the permit. Doing so, Echols said, would harm the health of the river.
"Atlanta thinks it shouldn't have any standards," Echols said. "Removing those standards is not an option. ... I've got a problem with it, and I'm hoping that the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] will too."
In an interview with CL, Atlanta Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina denies SRWA's claims. She says that the city's request to the state to change the pollution limits "looks bad on its face" because, at first glance, it appears to remove almost all the limits previously required by the EPD.
But Macrina says the move is necessary because the city's CSO system isn't designed to remove the pollutants covered by the EPD permit. According to the city, the state's CSO monitoring requirements became "obsolete" once the water quality control facility serving the South River was upgraded in 2007.
Macrina and other watershed department officials think there is a misunderstanding of what functions the CSOs should be required to perform.
"The CSO facility isn't a filtering system," Deputy Commissioner Margaret Tanner says. She says it's designed to screen out the large trash - like basketballs, cups, shoes - and then chlorinate and dechlorinate the water before discharging it back into the river.
Tanner says the city's facilities aren't capable of handling the reduction required by the permit. In addition, she says that heavy rainwater significantly dilutes the wastewater, which makes adhering to the standards more difficult, if not impossible.
The city is asking the state for permission to redefine how removed pollutants are measured in a way that shows whether CSO equipment is functioning, without facing penalties. She adds that the city isn't seeking to pollute the rivers, saying, "we're environmentalists too."
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