Cleaning Up Atlanta’s Sewers

Protecting surface waters in a fast-growing area of the South
By Sally Bethea

Atlanta is the poster child for sprawling development—seemingly in defiance of its location only 85 miles downstream of the north Georgia spring that gives birth to the region’s major water supply source, the Chattahoochee River.
In 1990, the city stretched 60 miles, north to south; today its northern limits are 110 miles from its southern limits. There are no geographic constraints to Atlanta’s growth. Yet this growing metropolitan area of more than 4 million people has the smallest watershed of any major urban area in the country that relies on local surface water to sustain its people and its economic prosperity.
Photo: Susan J. Ross, Atlanta Dept. of Watershed Management
Mayor Shirley Franklin a Clean Water Atlanta hardhat with the City of Atlanta in the background

The community that has grown into the 11th largest metropolitan area in the country was founded in the 1840s because of its key location for connecting railroad lines, not because of its abundant water resources for future populations. If city fathers had not convinced the federal government to invest in a major reservoir upstream of the city, completed in 1956, Atlanta’s prospects for growth would have been extremely limited by now, given the sparse water resources.
Before the construction of Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee was a shallow, warm-water stream known to occasionally dry up in the summer. Its tributaries, which still flow through the city’s well-heeled and poor neighborhoods alike, are little more than headwater streams, easily affected by pollution and the increasing volumes of stormwater from the new roads, rooftops, and other hard surfaces that paved the way for unparalleled growth in the 1990s.
Most of Atlanta’s sewer system was built between 1890 and 1930 on the abrupt slopes and narrow floodplains of an Appalachian forest underlain with granite. In 1934, construction began on a new sewer system, financed by the federal Works Progress Administration. Prior to that time, half of all sewage was simply dumped in streams leading to the Chattahoochee River.
With each new hotel and high-rise office building, the number of connections to the aging system increased. By the 1970s, the city’s sewer system was so overloaded when it rained that it discharged raw sewage into city creeks, leaving toilet paper hanging in trees and human waste rotting in stagnant pools. Environmental officials at all levels—city, state, and federal—knew about the situation, which threatened public health, recreational areas, and property values, but they did nothing.
In a small but old and highly developed portion of the city, rain that flowed into storm drains was funneled into the same system that carried household and industrial sewage to treatment plants. During the torrential downpours with which Atlanta is so familiar, the sudden inflow of rainwater swamped the sewage treatment system. The resulting overflow of stormwater and untreated sewage was discharged into creeks and rivers, carrying human feces, condoms, and other matter downstream. In the rest of the city, sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) polluted neighborhood streams—even during dry weather—thanks to decades of failure to maintain, repair, and replace 1,800 miles of sewer lines. The city’s three sewage treatment plants were not in much better shape.
Yet, in 1988, a state official declined to publicly release the results of water-quality tests in urban streams running through residential areas, saying that he feared some people might use the results to “embarrass” Atlanta. At that time, the prevailing attitude of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) was to hide the problem. If pressed, EPD officials declared that the city shouldn’t do anything until Congress developed a nationwide policy for treatment of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). According to one EPA report issued in 1990, the state “illegally waived its water quality standards for segments of the Chattahoochee River during periods when water quality was adversely impacted by CSO discharges.”
Award-winning environmental reporter Charles Seabrook investigated the sewer crisis and its impact on the Chattahoochee and West Point Lake, located 65 miles downstream of Atlanta. Seabrook’s hard-hitting articles, which appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the late 1980s, declared that West Point Lake was “dying”; he quoted scientists who said that the lake had become the “ultimate pollution sink for Atlanta’s waste” and was “exhibiting the classic signs of death by pollution.” These scientists confirmed that the lake had become so rich in phosphates, nitrates, and other pollutants that some parts of the lake were devoid of oxygen much of the year.
Photo: Susan J. Ross, Atlanta Dept. of Watershed Management
Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Robert Hunter, left, Atlanta Mayor Shirely Franklin, second from right,author Sally Bethea, far right, and staff in an Upper Chattahooche Riverkeeper patrol boat
In 1989, it was estimated that nearly 4 million tons of phosphorus were flowing down the Chattahoochee and into the lake every year. In the fall of that year, the city’s R.M. Clayton sewage treatment plant, the largest such facility in the southeast, dumped 200 million gallons of raw sewage into the river during a storm event. Massive spills such as this one were routine during the 1980s and 1990s.
Irate downstream citizens and state legislators took their concerns to the state capitol and demanded that something be done to protect their lake and the river; they called Atlanta’s sewer disposal system “an abomination” and “a disgrace.” Legislation passed in 1989 and 1990 that banned the use of phosphate detergent in Atlanta. Subsequently, EPD issued permits to metro Atlanta sewage plants to require phosphorus levels not to exceed 0.75 milligram per liter. Other state legislation set deadlines for the city to construct treatment facilities at the city’s seven combined sewer overflow locations, so that federal water-quality standards would be met.
By 1991, the larger Atlanta community was beginning to wake up to the incredible pollution that was flowing through its neighborhoods and on downstream to other towns. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article with elaborate maps entitled “Streams of Waste—Atlanta’s economic growth depends on its ability to save its urban waterways.”
As city officials began to design plans to meet the legislative deadlines, they ran into significant neighborhood opposition to the construction of five proposed mini-treatment CSO plants; this was especially true with regard to a highly misconceived plan to locate one of the facilities in Atlanta’s historic Piedmont Park. There was little trust between the citizens and city government, a situation that did not improve until Shirley Franklin was elected mayor and took office in 2002.
While the downstream communities were demanding immediate improvements to clean up their lake, some Atlanta activists were determined to oppose the city’s proposed sewer cleanup plan for a variety of reasons. In internal memos, federal EPA scientists called Atlanta’s plans nothing more than “Band-Aid solutions”; the city proposed to spend $100 million on mini-facilities that would do little more than screen and chlorinate, but not de-chlorinate, the sewer overflows. These scientists predicted that the effluent from the facilities would fail to meet water-quality standards. Ignoring these concerns, the Georgia EPD issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) discharge permits for the CSO facilities.
Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (UCR) was established in 1994 as a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization with a mission of protecting and restoring the river that supplies drinking water to more than 3.5 million people. UCR was not established to focus solely on Atlanta’s sewer problems; however, it was clear from the beginning that the organization had to tackle this issue as soon as possible.
After reviewing Atlanta’s CSO permit files and finding significant reported violations on the monthly discharge monitoring reports, UCR sent a letter to the City of Atlanta and to the Georgia EPD in 1995, expressing its grave concerns about the CSO discharges and their continuing impacts on tributaries to the Chattahoochee and ultimately the river itself. UCR was also aware of problems associated with the completion of upgrades at the city’s sewer plants, especially the R.M. Clayton plant, and mentioned them as well.
Receiving no response, UCR decided to build a coalition of affected downstream persons and governments to take the next step. In July 1995, two environmental organizations, six local governments, a lake homeowners’ association, a chamber of commerce, and two individuals sent a 60-day notice letter to the City of Atlanta. It alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act at the CSO facilities that discharged into the Chattahoochee River watershed.
Again, there was no response from the city, the state, or the federal government. So, in October 1995, UCR and its co-plaintiffs filed suit in federal court. As the case proceeded through the judicial process, UCR staff continued to patrol the river and its tributaries, finding example after example of sewage spills and contamination that were revealed in colorful detail on the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Based on anecdotal information about other sewer problems in Atlanta, EPA (Region IV) decided to conduct a thorough investigation of the city’s entire sewage system in early 1997, along with the Georgia EPD. This initiative resulted in an historic five-month joint enforcement review. The regulators made unannounced visits to sewage plants and walked urban streams to determine the extent of the sanitary sewer overflow problem.
In 1997, a federal judge issued an order on a summary judgment motion, finding in UCR’s favor that it was “a matter of undisputed fact that the CSO treatment facilities are dumping massive amounts of proscribed metals and fecal coliform into the tributaries of the Chattahoochee.”
Now, the problem became a question of how the city would fix its CSO discharges so that they would meet federal water-quality standards.
Shortly after the order was issued in the CSO lawsuit, the EPA suggested that it and the state EPD work with UCR to settle the CSO case. The agencies would then proceed on their own with a legal action to tackle the extensive SSO problems that plagued the city. After five months of intensive negotiations in 1998, UCR and the regulators agreed to a settlement with the city that required studies and analyses that would lead to a remedial action plan for all of the city’s CSO facilities, not just those in the Chattahoochee Basin.
The city committed to a 2007 deadline to meet water-quality standards at the CSO outfalls. In addition to the $2.5 million cash penalty, the city also agreed to remove all trash from urban streams and fund a supplemental environmental project—a greenways acquisition program that would invest $25 million in the purchase and permanent protection of streamside lands. (To date, 1,100 acres of greenways have been protected along 22 miles of streambanks.)
From the day that UCR filed its lawsuit against the city, it had clear goals in mind: a federal consent decree, specific deadlines for system upgrades, and compliance with water-quality standards. UCR never tried to dictate the cleanup technology but was insistent that water-quality standards be met by certain dates and advocated a plan that would clean up the Chattahoochee and its tributaries in the quickest, most cost-effective, and most efficient manner.
In 2001, the city presented its remedial action plan. It included a combination of storage (in tunnels—remember the granite), treatment, and some separation of sanitary and storm sewers in the 15% of the city served by the combined system. Once completed, this plan would result in 90% of Atlanta being served by separated sanitary and storm sewers. For a variety of reasons (engineering, cost, water-quality, and regulatory), the city decided to significantly improve the collection and underground storage of the combined sewage and stormwater and construct a new facility to treat all of this wastewater to specific standards. Although UCR had no formal role in approving the plan, it hired a national engineering firm that works with other waterkeeper organizations to review the concepts presented for any fatal flaws. UCR consultants found a number of medium-level concerns, which it outlined in its comment letter to the EPA. These concerns were ultimately resolved by modifications to the city’s sewer cleanup plan.
In 2002, Shirley Franklin was inaugurated as the first African-American woman to become mayor of Atlanta, or any major southern city. After she was elected mayor, Franklin talked sewers every chance she got and even dubbed herself the “Sewer Mayor.” She asked the president of the Georgia Institute of Technology to oversee a blue-ribbon panel of national experts to review the city’s proposed sewer cleanup concept plan. When the panel approved it, she began to work to fund the $3 billion needed for sewer and water infrastructure upgrades.
One of the biggest challenges UCR faced was presented by a small group of activists who objected to the city’s proposed cleanup plan. Instead, they promoted their own financially infeasible solution. Even after the regulatory agencies and independent experts gave the city’s plan a “thumbs up” and construction projects were moving forward, these activists continued to oppose the plan in every forum possible. They even resorted to personal attacks on UCR and others involved with fixing Atlanta’s sewer system.
After an extensive campaign by Mayor Franklin, the business community, and others to secure support for a water and sewer rate hike to fund the sewer improvements, the Atlanta City Council finally approved a substantial rate increase in January 2004. A prominent business leader associated with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said that this vote was possibly one of the most important votes in Atlanta’s history.
Later that year, the citizens overwhelmingly approved a one-cent sales tax increase for four years to help fix the sewers and clean up the Chattahoochee and its tributaries. Finally, Georgia’s Republican governor agreed to help the Democratic mayor and pledged $500 million in low-interest loans.
On October 10, 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a retrospective article:
Ten years ago today, the city of Atlanta was routinely spilling raw sewage into the Chattahoochee River from its aging, broken and overwhelmed sewers. On October 10, 1995, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, then a startup environmental advocacy group, filed its first federal lawsuit to force the city to fix its sewers.
Today, the city is well on its way to spending $3.2 billion to overhaul its water and sewer systems. Sewage spills occur less frequently. And, after years of racking up more than $20 million in fines for missed deadlines, Atlanta is on target to complete upgrades to one section of its sewer system by 2007 and the other by 2014.

Sally Bethea is executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
SW July/August 2006
Chattahoochee River