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County goes all-in on permit appeal
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County officially kicked off its appeal of a recent court ruling that revokes its wastewater discharge permit for a facility expansion.

At a Tuesday work session, commissioners voted 5-0 to authorize the appeal and $35,000 in additional attorney’s fees to King & Spalding.

In a June 1 decision, Judge Kristin Miller of the Office of State Administrative Hearings sided with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which challenged the limits the state Environmental Protection Division had set for the Fowler wastewater facility.

Miller also set revised pollutant levels for a reissuance of the permit, which would hold the county to higher standards in wastewater discharge into the Chattahoochee River.

The county’s appeal will go to Forsyth County Superior Court.

EPD also plans to appeal the ruling, though the specifics of that appeal could not immediately be determined.

Tuesday, County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the county believes the stricter limits set for fecal coliform and phosphorus levels are not necessary.

"This is an order that does not serve the public interest and that it in fact accomplishes very little for an extraordinary amount of money," Jarrard said.

The attorneys feel strongly about the need to appeal, Jarrard said, and may discount their costs to continue.

The commission has thus far approved $390,000 in legal fees for the case, which began in September when Riverkeeper sued the EPD.

Forsyth joined to defend its permit, which granted the county the ability to release 6 million gallons per day of treated water from Fowler into the Chattahoochee.

The facility in south Forsyth currently discharges about 3 mgd, but the additional capacity for Fowler and the planned Shakerag plant will serve future needs.

The county’s current discharge permit for 3 mgd was not affected by the recent ruling.

Tuesday, commissioners seemed to agree the potential benefit of an appeal far outweighed the costs of living with the ruling.

Commissioner Todd Levent said it could cost the county more than $10 million to acquire the infrastructure and chemicals to treat wastewater at the court-ordered level.

Those costs would likely be passed on to local sewer customers.

Commissioner Patrick Bell said it would be "irresponsible not to appeal this ruling, which adopts a radical interpretation of the Clean Water Act."

Bell also read a prepared statement in which he disputed several points the Riverkeeper’s executive director, Sally Bethea, made in a recent letter in the Forsyth County News.

He took exception to her remarks about the environmental impact of the original permit pollutant levels, as well as comparisons to permits received by other jurisdictions, among other issues.

The Riverkeeper group expressed concerns about the permitted limits set for two pollutants.

High levels of phosphorus can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen for living things.

Juliet Cohen, general counsel for the riverkeeper group, has also said it was concerned with the amounts of fecal coliform allowed, which increase the chance for viruses and bacteria.

According to Miller’s decision: "The court finds that the permitted discharge will result in lower water quality in the Chattahoochee River."

Miller pointed to the facility’s technical ability to discharge higher quality water and ruled that it is "economically feasible" for the county to do so.

Lower pollutant levels are allowed by law if necessary to accommodate for social or economic development, which the judge ruled does not apply in this case.