Atlanta facing additional fines

federal government says city has missed deadlines set by court orders to fix sewers
By Charles Seabrook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The city of Atlanta is facing still another $2.8 million in federal fines for allegedly failing to comply with deadlines and other terms of two federal court orders to fix its outmoded sewer system.

In a joint letter to Mayor Bill Campbell, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division said the fines were being imposed because the city has failed to submit on time studies and plans for upgrading the system. Deadlines for the plans and studies are specified in the federal consent decrees, approved by the Atlanta City Council and signed by Campbell.

Among the alleged violations, the EPA and EPD said, the city had missed deadlines for a sewer-maintenance management plan due Oct. 1; a plan for modifying the city's sewer mapping program due Nov. 23; and a sewer system evaluation survey due Oct. 1.

The letter, sent last week and made public Monday, also said that the city has not met interim standards for fecal coliform bacteria in city creeks--an indication that poorly treated sewage continues to flow into them--as stipulated in the consent orders. It also said the city has not carried out all of the required testing to determine the pollution levels in the waterways. Altogether, the city is being cited for seven violations of the consent orders.

In a separate action last week, state EPD Director Harold Reheis told the state Board of Natural Resources that "it appears that the city has no one in charge to assure compliance with the (decrees), and I will try to convince the mayor that he needs to get on top of this."

However, the federal authorities on Monday appeared to back off from their hard-line stance. A letter from regional EPA administrator John Hankinson was hand-delivered to Campbell, saying that the agency will not insist on payment of $709,000 of the fines if the city offers assurance that plans for fixing the sewer system will be submitted to the agency on time.

In addition, Hankinson said that the city can argue against the other allegations and seek relief from the other fines.

Campbell's office on Monday referred inquiries to the city's lawyers, who disputed EPA's and EPD's allegations. "The city was stunned to get these letters," said Richard Horder, who represented the city in negotiating the federal consent decrees.

He pointed out that the city has committed to spending $1.2 billion to fix its cracked and broken sewers and to upgrade its three sewage treatment plants. He said the city has been diligent in trying to meet all deadlines set by the consent orders.

Atlanta City Attorney Susan Pease Langford said the city contends that it "has not violated (the consent decrees), and therefore the city doesn't owe any fines."

The $2.8 million fine the state and federal environmental agencies are demanding comes on top of a $700,000 fine imposed on the city earlier this year under a consent decree that was signed in a separate action Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash. The order requires the city to carry out a rigorous program of improvements to its sewer pipes and treatment plants during the next 14 years.

Even though the city had agreed to the terms of the consent decree months ago and had agreed to several interim deadlines this year, Thrash did not officially sign the order until Monday.

Last year, the city paid $2.5 million under the mandates of another consent order that requires the city to clean up the pollution from its combined sewer overflows. CSOs dump mixtures of raw sewage and storm water into city creeks and the Chattahoochee and South rivers when it rains.

The CSO decree was part of the settlement of a 1995 lawsuit by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper against the city because of the city's failure to control pollution from the CSOs. Thrash later allowed the EPA and EPD to join the Riverkeeper in its legal action against the city. In a separate action, the government agencies sued the city because of its cracked and broken sewer system that caused manholes to overflow with raw sewage.

Both consent orders set dozens of rigorous deadlines that the city has to meet during the next 14 years to bring its sewer and sewage treatment systems into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Failure by the city to meet those deadlines can incur hefty fines.

In addition to the fines imposed under the consent decrees, the city has paid $19 million in penalties since 1990 because of its sewer woes.