The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has issued an ultimatum to a privately owned wastewater treatment plant in Cumming: Fix it or shut it down.
"There have been a number of violations through the years," said Sam Buckles, municipal team manager for the EPD’s regional office in Cartersville.
On Dec. 1, the EPD issued a consent order, including a proposed fine of $5,000, to Habersham Action Committee Inc. The group represents homeowners in the Habersham on Lanier subdivision, which is off Buford Dam Road.
When the subdivision was built more than 30 years ago, a small wastewater plant was constructed to serve the nearly 400 homes in the development.
Buckles said the plant discharges about 110,000 gallons into Lake Lanier per day, on average. He said the plant does not have a history of sewage spills, but on a number of occasions its effluent has not met the EPD’s water pollution standards.
The facility has been cited for these violations, as well as for having maintenance deficiencies and for failing to submit reports.
Some of the problems with the plant have been the result of confusion over who’s in charge.
After the original developer disappeared years ago, the responsibility fell to the homeowners. But then an investment group that was developing another subdivision nearby tried to lay claim to the plant.
George Butler, an attorney for the homeowners’ group, said the dispute went on for about six years.
"But the EPD has recognized my client as the legitimate trustee," he said.
Now that the ownership question appears to have been settled, the group must decide how to respond to the EPD’s consent order. Buckles said after the final order is executed, probably in mid-January, "They have to tell us within 45 days whether they’re going to upgrade the facility or abandon it and connect to city sewer."
He said if they choose to keep operating the plant, they’ll have to come up with a corrective action plan within 60 days. If they decide to connect to Cumming’s sewer system instead, they’ll have 120 days to do that, after which they’ll be fined $100 a day.
Buckles said if the plant is upgraded, it will have a year to get in compliance with most of the EPD’s pollution standards, and two years for the phosphorus standard.
If it were up to him, Buckles said, he would choose not to have the plant renovated.
"Ideally, it would be preferable for them to hook onto sewer, because at least we’d have one less plant to deal with," he said.
Butler said the choice is not as simple as it seems.
"It’s an economic decision," he said. "The question is, will the city charge these 400 homeowners tap fees at $5,000 apiece?"
The answer is most likely yes, according to John Heard, Cumming’s director of public utilities.
"It’s probable that we will charge the new customers the $5,000 connection fee," he said.
Butler said that’s an expense his clients can ill afford in these tough economic times.
"The city of Cumming has not offered us a dime’s worth of credit for the value of the plant," he said. "I feel they’re trying to take advantage of the situation. They’re pressuring the homeowners to abandon this plant."
Heard said he’s not telling anyone what they should do, but hooking onto sewer seems like a natural and logical choice.
"The plant was built in the 1970s, so its technology is somewhat antiquated," he said. "Significant upgrades would have to be made."
Heard said the plant has been poorly maintained over the years, as have the sewer lines that run throughout the community.
"The system is dilapidated," he said. "We will have to do some work on those sewer lines. That’s one reason for charging the connection fee."
About three years ago, the city took over the billing for the plant.
This made sense, Heard said, because Habersham on Lanier is in Cumming’s service area for drinking water, so the residents already were getting water bills from the city. It was not that difficult to bill for sewer as well.
Nor would it be difficult for Cumming to add 400 homes to its sewer service.
"We could absorb those customers into our existing sewer system. We have the capacity," Heard said. "We have an upgraded plant that came on line in January."
He said Cumming’s improved plant is permitted to discharge up to 8 million gallons a day into Big Creek, which discharges into the Chattahoochee River near Roswell.
Heard said Cumming also has a future plan to build a new treatment plant that would discharge directly into Lake Lanier.
"The EPD has already allocated us 7.5 million gallons a day (for that project)," he said.
The EPD would like to see municipal systems take over or replace many of the small, privately owned plants, which sometimes fall into disrepair after the developer is no longer involved with the project.
Heard said the city of Cumming has done this before.
"Several years ago, we acquired the privately owned Lanier Beach plant (west of Buford Dam near Bald Ridge Creek)," he said. "We’ve been operating it, but we’ll eventually shut it down."