Chattahoochee remains closed after major sewage spill
Over 11 miles of the Chattahoochee River remains closed after the river was polluted by raw sewage that spilled from Fulton County’s Big Creek wastewater treatment plant last month.
The National Park Service ordered the closing, from the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell to the Johnson Ferry Road crossing in east Cobb, which means no swimming or tubing activities downriver from the spill.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’ Jason Ulseth said that in his 16 years on the job, this is the first time that the Chattahoochee River has been closed. Ulseth’s organization was the first to discover the problem.
They saw bits of toilet paper and sewage floating through the river water and knew that the E. coli levels were at a “dangerous” level. The National Park Service first ordered 6 miles closed, but doubled the unsafe zone to 15 miles.
At issue are the unsafe levels of E. coli, a potentially dangerous bacterium found in fecal matter and sometimes an indicator of the presence of other possibly dangerous pathogens.
Most E. coli strains are relatively harmless, but do pose a threat to the very young, seniors, and those with compromised immune systems. Some strains have been known to cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and pneumonia.
The spill was first discovered last month when the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers saw the discharge into the river at Morgan Falls, near Sandy Springs. They reported it to Fulton County who denied that there was a problem.
Samples taken from more than 200 locations early the week of June 25 indicated a major contamination source somewhere within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA).
“It is crucial for individuals to avoid direct contact with the affected areas until further notice,” the CRNRA said.
Water quality testing showed E. coli bacteria levels almost 300 times higher than the recommended limits by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the spill area.
They tracked the source of that contamination to the outfall of the Big Creek wastewater treatment plant on June 29 and discovered that the plant was discharging raw, untreated sewage into the popular river and Fulton County subsequently found out the plant was malfunctioning.
On June 30th the Riverkeepers said it had been tracking this spill for more than a week and had contacted Fulton County.
“It was not treating any of the sewage coming in and was pouring raw sewage into the Chattahoochee River every single day and they were not aware of the issue,” Ulseth said. “We notified Fulton County that there was a major sewer spill taking place there at the outfall, which they denied and the response to us was that the plan was operating 100 percent correctly and there were no issues.”
In explaining the cause of the spill, Fulton County Public Works Director David Clark said it wasn’t gallons of raw sewage pouring into the river that delivered dangerously high levels of the bacteria E. coli — it was many gallons of poorly treated wastewater. Clark said the plant malfunction was determined to be the cause.
The ongoing sewage spill has been classified as a major violation of the Clean Water Act, according to the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Said Ulseth, “So this spill is a violation of the Clean Water Act. It is a major spill under Georgia law and so they are in violation. We do anticipate enforcement action coming from the state following the spill”.
The City of Atlanta draws its drinking water from intake points several miles downriver and say the contamination is not affecting the drinking water for Atlanta.
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Fulton County officials said they are working to get the river reopened as soon as possible. Ulseth thinks it could take days or even weeks.
CRNRA Acting Superintendent Beth Wheeler said, “We’re keeping the river closed until we get water quality data that supports reopening. And we’re working closely with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to coordinate and monitor and test the water.”
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that’s dedicated to protecting the Chattahoochee River, from Helen all the way down to Florida, to secure enough clean water for generations.