Atlanta Is Making Progress Fixing Its Sewers, But It’s Not Done

The city has spent about $2 billion so far, addressing issues with its sewers. 

Pixabay Images

In the 1990s, Atlanta got sued because its sewers were polluting the Chattahoochee River and other waterways. For the past two decades, the city has been under a federal consent decree to address the problems.

In a review of Atlanta’s progress released Wednesday, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General found the city is complying with its federal agreement, though it’s not yet fixed everything.

“We found that the city is making progress,” said Katie Butler, the director for water program evaluations at the Office of Inspector General in the EPA. “There are many construction projects that are not yet finished. Residents in Atlanta have heard about these over the years, and there are more construction projects to go.”

The city has spent about $2 billion so far, addressing two different issues with its sewers.

One, which the city has largely dealt with, are with combined sewers, where rain combines with sewage. In the past, storms could overwhelm those combined systems, and lead to the sewers releasing untreated sewage. It used to happen 50 to 70 times a year, according to the OIG report, but from 2009 through 2017, it happened 10 times total.

The other set of problems are in sanitary sewers, which shouldn’t have rainwater in them, only sewage. They can get blocked by grease, for instance. Butler said the city is still working on those issues.

“They’re still trying to fix leaks, find illicit connections, and prevent problems that lead to sanitary sewer overflows where a pipe will fail or the system will be overwhelmed,” she said.

In 2017, there were 279 sanitary sewer overflows, spilling 2 million gallons, according to the OIG.

Atlanta has until 2027 to meet the requirements of the consent decree.

There weren’t any surprises in the report, said Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The non-profit group initiated the 1990s lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree, and is still involved in making sure Atlanta follows through. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the U.S. EPA were also involved in the suit and in the consent decree.

The Department of Watershed Management said it is still reviewing the OIG report.