Forsyth County officials will consider their options next week while reviewing a judge’s decision to revoke a wastewater discharge permit.
Since county commissioners and others have not yet been briefed on the ruling, the government has not released any official comment on the matter.
In her decision Wednesday, Judge Kristin Miller of the Office of State Administrative Hearings sided with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which challenged the environmental limits the state Environmental Protection Division set for the county’s 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.
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, grants 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 are intended to 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.
Commissioners have authorized at least $390,000 in attorney’s fees for the law firm King & Spalding, which handled the case.
The fees were taken from the county’s water and sewer fund.
Commissioner Patrick Bell has said throughout the process that the Riverkeeper’s appeal was uncalled for and a detriment to county water customers.
Bell said Friday that he was “quite shocked” by Miller’s decision and that he could support an appeal to her ruling.
“I don’t believe that the Riverkeeper presented enough evidence that it was harmful to river,” he said. “We can certainly, clearly document that it’s harmful to the community not to be able to provide this infrastructure.”
Being “forced into limits that are unreasonable,” he said, would pass an increased cost onto the county sewer customers to pay for the higher treatment costs.
The cost could also affect taxpayers, he said, if the county’s sewer infrastructure can’t provide for development that would increase the tax base.
Bell also said the limits approved by the EPD were based on limits deemed acceptable by Riverkeeper in other jurisdictions.
An evidentiary hearing on the challenge, held in late March, focused on whether the discharge was authorized and necessary to accommodate the area's social and economic development, one of six counts brought forth in the Riverkeeper's petition.
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.
The cost to the county for the higher quality discharge set by the judge could potentially hit “millions of dollars,” said Tim Perkins, the county’s director of water and sewer.
Factors contributing to that cost include: operational costs, “significant” modifications to plant infrastructure, additional treatment chemicals and the potential for fines if the monthly pollutant limit is exceeded, Perkins said.
He added that the county plans to review the decision next week.
If the county takes no further action, Perkins said, the EPD could reissue the permit at the pollutant limits set in the ruling.
Phone calls to the EPD seeking comment were not returned Friday.
In a statement, the Riverkeeper group hailed the decision as “a major victory for clean water.”
Andy Thompson, an attorney for the group, called the decision “thorough, well-reasoned and detailed.”
Thompson also said the permit “violated the clear language of the state and federal antidegradation rules because it is technically and economically feasible for Forsyth County to discharge significantly less pollutants and not degrade the water quality of the Chattahoochee River.”
High levels of phosphorus can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen for living things, said Juliet Cohen, a representative of the organization.
She said the group was also 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.
A Riverkeeper news release stated that the original permit levels “were as much as 100 times higher than limits in other recently issued permits in the watershed.”