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EPD considers changes to discharge rules
Comes on heels of wastewater permit battle
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Forsyth County News

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The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has proposed some changes to its wastewater discharge guidelines, coming on the heels of the ongoing challenge of a Forsyth County permit.

Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the county agree that the proposed changes would have prevented the outcome of a state administrative hearing. On June 1, Judge Kristin Miller agreed with Riverkeeper that the permit’s pollutant levels were set too high.

Riverkeeper opposes the proposed changes, while Forsyth supports them.

A memo from EPD Director F. Allen Barnes states that the rules, last updated in 2005, “need revision because [they] lack clarity and the implementation procedures are out of date.”

The memo continues: “The [procedures] do not consider important alternatives to discharging wastewater, like water conservation, and do not allow the consideration of the advantages of returning flows to streams that experience water quantity shortages.”

Tim Perkins, Forsyth County water and sewer director, said the proposed changes “clarify the intent” of the Department of Natural Resources.

Prior to 2005, Perkins said the rule required dischargers to treat wastewater to the “highest and best practical treatment regardless of whether it was needed.”

“The DNR board took that out because they never intended that because it can be too costly,” he said. “They try to set standards to protect the classifications of the river, but not to go above and beyond what’s necessary.”

Miller’s ruling, however, essentially followed that previously removed standard in her current interpretation of the rules, Perkins said.

In the proposed changes, the anti-degradation analysis would not be conducted to set the appropriate limits for pollutants, but rather to “determine whether there is a reasonable alternative,” according to the EPD’s summary of the proposed amendments.

That’s a change that concerns Riverkeeper, said Juliet Cohen, counsel for the organization.

That rule would essentially limit the ability to find an appropriate treatment level by either granting the full permittable level or forcing no discharge into the water at all and requiring land application, Cohen said.

“The anti-degradation rule is not about those two extremes. It’s about looking at various alternatives to find the point where the economic and the environmental benefit are balanced,” she said. “There’s a lot of room between 0 and 100 percent, and that’s where Riverkeeper and [Judge Miller] agreed.”

Cohen also expressed concern about a provision emphasizing the importance of putting water back to meet the needs of downstream communities.

“It’s not a wholesale decision of ‘Well, they just need the water,’” Cohen said. “You have to return the water to a high quality. The existing water body should not be degraded just for the sake of getting more water into the system.”

Perkins said he doesn’t believe the new rules would weaken the standards for treating wastewater.

The EPD will still set allowable effluent limits based on a tiered water protection scale, which the proposed rules would add a new, more stringent level, he said.