The Valdosta Daily Times
The City of Valdosta’s Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), also referred to as the Withlacoochee Pollution Control Plant, was built in the late 1970s, and less than a decade after its construction, the facility began experiencing problems handling the amount of water coming to it during periods of extended rainfall.
Records of major spills and permit violations date back to 1984, four years after the plant came online in December 1980, according to the City of Valdosta.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is responsible for issuing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permits (NPDES) that allow plants to dump treated wastewater back into state rivers, provided the plants meet the safety standards listed in their permit. Wastewater from treatment plants cannot contain solids, bacteria, or chlorine when it is discharged into the environment.
The WWTP is not the only plant to experience problems throughout its history, according to the EPD. Many other plants, especially those in metropolitan Atlanta, have come under close scrutiny by the EPD after heavy violations of their NPDES permits.
The EPD took strong action in Atlanta, issuing a consent decree in 1999 that fined the city for its permit violations and forced the city to take action to improve its wastewater treatment system. Since the decree was issued, Atlanta has spent more than $2 billion to make repairs, according to the EPD.
Since the spill of more than 50 million gallons of raw sewage from sewer lines into the Withlacoochee River during the 2009 flood, the EPD has been watching and working with Valdosta as the city has tried to clean its sewage problem.
Because the City of Valdosta needs a funding source to improve its wastewater treatment and discharge issues, the EPD has worked with the city to direct improvements and suggest ways for the city to return to compliance of its NPDES permit. This is the typical action the EPD takes in major treatment center discharge situations like Valdosta’s.
“Usually in such cases, we have a meeting with (city officials), we ask them a lot of questions, and we will propose an order by consent, and ask them to agree on the terms, and we go from there,” said Marzieh Shahbazaz, municipal compliance manager for the EPD. “We will listen to them, but they have to comply.”
A meeting between the EPD and the City of Valdosta is scheduled “very soon,” Shahbazaz said; the EPD will review the details of the WWTP spills and make a decision on a course of action.
“Usually after we review everything, we will find out the deficiency,” Shahbazaz said. “Then we will ask, ‘How are you going to fix that?’ and we approve or disapprove. Cities don’t want to waste their money on something we will disapprove of, and after we approve it, we will give them a schedule to take corrective action in a reasonable time.”
As part of corrective measures, cities under EPD watch are asked to submit Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs) each month to show the EPD whether water treatment is up to permit standards. If cities continue to fail these standards or meet deadlines to take corrective action, a consent decree could become necessary.
“There is nothing that says we can’t issue a consent decree to Valdosta,” said Shahbazaz. “We tried to work with them to get them into compliance, but we can take enforcement action. We tell them what we need, and leave it to them to choose the technology. They budget the money. It is the city’s responsibility to pay for it.”
The EPD cracked down on Atlanta treatment centers due to more stringent limits listed in their permits. Larger treatment centers like those in Atlanta use both a primary- and secondary-treatment process, which should result in cleaner water but also runs the risk of harmful chemicals like chlorine and phosphorus being discharged into the environment.
Primary treatment has been used to treat wastewater for decades, Shahbazaz said, and was likely the method used by South Georgia before the construction of the WWTP.
Like those in metro Atlanta, the WWTP uses a secondary-treatment process. In primary systems, sewage is run through a screen to separate liquids from large solids, and bacteria is added to the liquids to further aid separation.
Solids settle out of the liquids in a primary clarifier, and the solids will become sludge. The clearer water at the top of the clarifier is then sent to the secondary system, in which the water is chlorinated to kill pathogens and then treated to remove chlorine.
Between 2001 and 2004, the State of Georgia made transparency of major spills a priority, and specified that cities must place warning signs, report the spill to the Georgia Department of Public Health, begin water sampling upstream and downstream from the spill if it measures more than 10,000 gallons, and to take out legal ads in local newspapers informing the public of the spill within seven days.
Prior to this more precise mandate, the state maintained a more general mandate that cities must make “public notice” of spills, Shahbazaz said.
Compared to other treatment plants, the WWTP seems closer to the river than normal, Shahbazaz said. Most treatment plants are constructed near rivers and at an elevation lower than most of the cities they serve, allowing gravity to feed sewage into the plants from uphill.
The recurrent flooding of the WWTP is also unusual, Shahbazaz said.
“I know a few facilities had a little bit of river water coming to the plant, but not flooding the equipment,” Shahbazaz said. “Plants should be close to the river and at the lower point of the city, but not necessarily in the flood zone. We have many facilities (in Georgia) that are close to the river, but don’t get flooded.”
The EPD is currently processing numbers from this year’s raw sewage spills and could have totals as soon as Monday. The city’s decision to shut down the WWTP as a preventative measure to both save on the cost of repairs and improve the time to return to normal is also under investigation.
“It is not common for a treatment center to shut down,” Shahbazaz said. “We are reviewing to see if they could have contained the spills or the wastewater.”
Dawn Harris-Young, spokesperson for the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region Four, agreed with Shahbazaz that the city’s action in shutting the plant down is “not something that usually happens. We would try to work with them to avoid that action.”
Harris-Young said, “I don’t recall it (a city shutting down a treatment plant) happening anywhere before in our Southeast Region.”
EPA Region 4 oversees the EPD’s actions in Georgia along with agencies in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, six Tribes (Native American reservations).
Harris-Young sent The Times links to recent EPA enforcement actions in other states that show fines of nearly a half-million dollars and direction to spend millions on resolving the issues causing the spills.
When asked about the city’s chart of SSOs, or sanitary sewer overflows, from 2007 to 2012 showing in excess of 226 million gallons, Harris-Young said when taken in context that it was over a period of several years, it might not seem like a lot, but “it really is a lot.”
Harris-Young said the EPA defines SSOs as “discharges of raw sewage from municipal sanitary sewer systems.” In the enforcement action reports she supplied, the EPA further states that SSOs “pose a significant threat to public health and the environment, and remain a leading cause of water-quality impairment. SSOs contain raw sewage and have high concentrations of bacteria from fecal contamination, as well as disease-causing pathogens and viruses.”
The EPA has been looking into issues with the Valdosta plant for some time, and requested information from the city in October 2012. The information is still being processed by the EPA, according to Harris-Young.