South River’s History
Historically, two of the biggest polluters of South River have been the city of Atlanta and DeKalb County. For decades these municipalities have degraded the river with raw and poorly treated sewage, a practice that has been curtailed but not completely stopped. A 1997 federal consent decree limits the amount of combined sewage Atlanta can legally dump into the river, better state enforcement ended years of unchecked pollution from DeKalb County’s wastewater treatment plants, and in 2010 DeKalb County entered into a federal consent decree that requires the county to fix its sanitary sewer overflow problem.
City of Atlanta
Atlanta is one of only two municipalities in Georgia that continues to operate a combined sewer wastewater system where sewage and stormwater are mixed in a single pipe and after minimal treatment this mixture is discharged into creeks and rivers. For more than 40 years, Georgia’s capital city routinely dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into South River each year from its Custer Avenue and McDaniel-Glenn combined sewer facilities on the city’s east and southeast side. This practice continued virtually unchecked until 1995 when Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against Atlanta for violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act. This lawsuit led to a federal consent decree in 1997 between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia Environmental Protection Division and City of Atlanta that required Atlanta to reduce the impact of its combined sewers on rivers, creeks, and streams in the area.
The height of community advocacy in support of cleaner water in South River occurred in 1999 when South River Watershed Alliance joined forces with other community organizations to push for complete separation of Atlanta’s combined sewers. Complete sewer separation would have satisfied the consent decree and eliminated the two combined sewer overflow facilities polluting South River. In the end, with little in the way of protests or opposition from the elected leadership of DeKalb County, Atlanta officials made the decision to close only the McDaniel-Glenn facility, leaving the Custer Avenue facility open and operational.
Today, with each moderate rainfall, the Custer Avenue facility belches hundreds of thousands and even millions of gallons, during heavier events, of polluted combined sewage into Intrenchment Creek which flows into South River. This practice will continue until Atlanta makes the commitment to stop using our creeks and rivers as sewers and separate its remaining combined sewer system.
In 1961, DeKalb County began operating its Snapfinger Water Pollution Control Plant. A second much smaller facility, Pole Bridge, opened in 1973. The Snapfinger plant opened amid almost immediate complaints from nearby residents of foul odors coming from the facility. This situation worsened with time and in 1978, more than fifteen years after it opened, residents filed a lawsuit seeking relief from noise, odors, and further pollution of South River. Over the next ten years, unchecked pollution of South River continued. For example, in 1988, the stretch of South River near Snapfinger Road was referred to as “Soap Shoals” because it was constantly bubbling with suds. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA EPD) noted that “South River is a little cleaner but not quite clean enough.” Several years later, in 1991, GA EPD declared 60 miles of South River, almost its entire length, “extremely polluted.”
Almost 10 years later, in 1999, pollution in South River had not improved causing officials in downstream Rockdale County to complain that they were being denied use of the river as a result of pollution from Atlanta and DeKalb County. Ongoing complaints led to more effective enforcement by GA EPD of state issued wastewater permits which led to improved operation and maintenance of wastewater facilities by the county. Over the next several years, Snapfinger and Pole Bridge finally achieved permit requirements for wastewater discharged into South River.
Acquisition of parkland along the river began with a donation from Atlanta, near Constitution Lake, in partial settlement of the 1997 combined sewer overflow consent decree. In 2003, DeKalb County added another 26 acres near South River at Snapfinger Road. These type acquisitions have helped to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff by limiting development along the river.
Many believed that the turning point in DeKalb County’s unrelenting assault on South River had finally come to an end in 2006 when GA EPD fined DeKalb County $50,000 for dumping 10 million gallons of raw sewage into Snapfinger Creek about 200 yards from the confluence of South River. In the past, the amount of fines imposed by GA EPD had not been large enough to serve as incentive for DeKalb to fix its sanitary sewer overflow problem, nor had the agency ever required that the county pay the fine and fix the problem. Was such a huge fine for one spill a wakeup call, signaling an end to the pollution pass the county had been receiving from GA EPD for years? Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case. In late 2007, DeKalb County was once again order to pay “a settlement of $157,000” for 210 sanitary sewer spills that occurred from February 2005 to March 2006. This pattern was repeated in late 2008, when the county was order to pay $162,193 for 196 sewer spills.
In December 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that year long negotiations with DeKalb County had resulted in a federal consent decree that requires the county to eliminate all sanitary sewer overflows within an 8.5 year period. During the six year period, January 2006 to October 2011, DeKalb County experienced upwards of 1,000 sanitary sewage spills. During the ten month period, January 2011 through October 2011, the county dumped more than 1.6 million gallons of sewage into creeks and South River.
In May 2011, a request by South River Watershed Alliance to intervene in the DeKalb County consent decree was granted by the federal court. Intervention gives citizens a seat at the table, increasing the chances that the consent decree will have the intended effect – the elimination of sanitary sewer overflows in DeKalb County. Additionally, the involvement of citizens brings a certain transparency to the process that would not ordinarily be there. Long overdue in coming, the consent decree has the potential to finally revoke the privilege to pollute the county has enjoyed for decades. Only time will tell.