The Georgia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling favoring Forsyth County in its fight to defend a wastewater discharge permit.
The permit, approved in August 2010 by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, was challenged by advocacy group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which argued that the allowable pollutant levels were “unnecessarily weak.”
Judge Kristin Miller of the Office of State Administrative Hearings agreed with Riverkeeper and set revised pollutant levels for a resistance of the permit in June 2011.
However, Forsyth County appealed Miller’s decision to the Forsyth County Superior Court, where Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley reversed the ruling and ordered further review by an administrative law judge.
The appeals court decision, dated Wednesday, upheld the Superior Court findings for the main issue of the case, which dealt with the allowable pollutant levels according to the EPD’s anti-degradation rules.
The permit, once finalized, will give the county the ability to release 6 million gallons per day of treated water from the Fowler wastewater facility into the Chattahoochee River.
Though Riverkeeper launched the suit against the EPD, Forsyth joined to defend its permit and hired law firm King & Spalding to represent it, for which commissioners have approved $527,800 in fees for the case.
Lewis Jones, of the firm, said the ruling resolves the remaining issues with the permit and will return the matter down the line to the administrative law judge to make official.
“It’s a very good decision for us. And it should clear the way for the county to proceed in accordance with that permit, provided the Supreme Court does not intervene, and we don’t think it will,” he said.
The Georgia Supreme Court will get an opportunity, since Riverkeeper plans to petition the court to hear the case.
Andy Thompson, an attorney representing the organization, said the group hopes the court will consider the matter because the discharge would be just north of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a “pristine” and popular location.
Thompson added that Riverkeeper does not believe the Appeals Court properly reviewed the information.
“We believe that the decision is in err because it ignored the clear language of the anti-degradation rule,” he said.
Judges M. Yvette Miller and William Ray agreed with the Superior Court that the administrative law judge “erred in her decision.”
“Contrary to the ALJ’s interpretation, the plain language of the rule only requires a determination of whether lower water quality generally is necessary to accommodate economic or social development,” the decision states. “The language does not require a permit-specific analysis of whether the exact effluent limits for fecal coliform and phosphorus are necessary.”
The Fowler plant currently holds a seasonal permit, which allows discharges into the Chattahoochee during the colder months of the year.
As part of the discharge expansion request, the county also applied to receive a year-round permit.
While that permit is on hold, the seasonal one is not affected by the court’s decision.