Forsyth County plans to appeal a recent ruling that would revoke its wastewater discharge permit for a facility expansion.
In her 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.
Chairman Brian Tam said commissioners reached a decision to appeal the ruling this week.
"The board is united in trying to expand and provide sewer capacity for its residents down there," Tam said. "We feel the judge’s ruling was too stringent."
In September, the Riverkeeper group appealed the permit from the EPD, arguing that the allowable pollutant levels were "unnecessarily weak."
The permit, issued Aug. 18, 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 will not be affected by the ruling.
Though Riverkeeper launched the suit against the EPD, Forsyth County joined to defend its permit.
In moving forward with the appeal, the commission will stay with law firm King & Spalding to represent its interest, Tam said.
To this point, the commission has authorized spending up to $390,000 on the case.
Consideration of any additional funding would take place in an open meeting, Tam said.
It could not be determined if the EPD plans to participate in the appeal.
Sally Bethea, executive director of Riverkeeper, said the nonprofit organization was not surprised to learn of the appeal, but was "very disappointed."
"We think it’s the wrong decision for the river and the wrong decision for Forsyth taxpayers, who will be helping fund this expensive litigation," Bethea said.
The county’s legal fees for the case have so far come from the water and sewer fund, which primarily receives revenue from county water customers.
Juliet Cohen, general counsel for the riverkeeper group, said the judge’s ruling will be difficult for the county to overcome on appeal.
"Judge Miller’s decision was very detailed, thorough and well thought-out," Cohen said. "It was completely supported by state and federal laws."
According to Miller’s decision, which was released last week: "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.
Tim Perkins, Forsyth’s director of water and sewer, has said the cost to the county for the higher quality discharge set by the judge could potentially hit millions of dollars.
Factors contributing to his estimate include: operational costs, significant modifications to plant infrastructure, additional treatment chemicals and the potential for fines if the monthly pollutant limit is exceeded.
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. Cohen has also said the group was concerned with the amounts of fecal coliform allowed, which increase the chance for viruses and bacteria.
The original permit allowed for .3 mg of phosphorus per liter on a monthly average, which Miller revised to .08 mg per liter.
Fecal coliform levels, originally set at 200 units per 100 milliliters, were revised to 23 units per 100 milliliters.