Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

Enforcement Highlights


See Wastewater - Stormwater Pollution Control - Stream Buffer Protection - Instream Flow Protection




Chronic Sewage Spills by City of Atlanta:

From the late 1970s through the 1990s, officials in the City of Atlanta failed to invest in regular maintenance of the city’s sewer system, which led to thousands of overflows and spills of untreated sewage each year during wet and dry weather. This pollution resulted in elevated bacteria levels in neighborhood streams and ultimately the Chattahoochee and South Rivers, threatening public health and lowering downstream property values.

In 1995, CRK filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Atlanta for failing to control the discharge of raw sewage and other pollutants into these waterways from combined sewer overflows (CSOs). CRK won the case in 1997 and settled it in 1998. Subsequently, the U.S. EPA and Georgia EPD pursued an enforcement action, which was made a part of our original lawsuit and was based on their five-month investigation of the city’s entire sewage system. The result was an enforceable plan to overhaul the city’s entire sewage system pursuant to a consent decree overseen by Federal Judge Thomas Thrash with all work to be completed by 2014 at an anticipated cost of more than $2.5 billion. Mayor Shirley Franklin (2002-2010) played a critical role in the implementation of the Atlanta Clean Water Program, which also includes massive upgrades to the city’s drinking water system. Two supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) were negotiated as part of the settlement — a massive cleanup of all trash in 37 miles of streams, completed in 1999, and a Greenway Acquisition Program funded with $25 million, which was completed in 2007 with the purchase of close to 2,000 acres of green space along tributaries and the river (see Greenway Project Overview). The city also had to pay a fine of $2.5 million.

In 2010, stressed by the recession, repeated droughts and a "high burden" on its ratepayers, the city petitioned the U.S. EPA for extra time to finish the remaining sewer system upgrades. In May 2012, the city was granted a 13-year extension – until 2027. Still, 99 percent of the volume of untreated raw sewage that once flowed into city waterways will no longer flow into the river and all major capital projects will have been completed in 2014. Given the city’s good-faith efforts, which resulted in significant water quality improvements, CRK supported the extension and continues to monitor the work until it is completed.

See more information about combined sewer overflows and sanitary sewer overflows.


Gwinnett County Discharge into Lake Lanier:

On Nov. 23, 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of CRK and others with a landmark interpretation of Georgia’s anti-degradation provisions, stating that sewage treatment plants are “not allowed to discharge water that is more polluted than it reasonably needs to be…”

This decision settled key questions in a lawsuit filed in 2001 by CRK, Lake Lanier Association, Sierra Club and Terry Hughey against the state EPD and Gwinnett County over a permit allowing the county to discharge 40 million gallons per day of treated sewage into Lake Lanier — a high quality water that provides drinking water for metro Atlanta and is visited by more than 8 million people per year.

Georgia water laws implementing the federal CWA require a two-pronged anti-degradation review prior to allowing the discharge of pollutants into high quality waters, like Lake Lanier. That review must prove that discharges that degrade waters are necessary to provide social or economic development and that treatment plants are using the best practicable technology to remove pollutants prior to issuing a permit. In the 6 to 1 decision, the court found that the plant can remove more pollutants than the permit required and thus violates the anti-degradation rules. Ultimately, the permit was issued by EPD with stronger permit limits for several pollutants. Lake Lanier Association’s attorney Steve O’Day with Smith, Gambrell & Russell argued the case before the Supreme Court, assisted by Andy Thompson. CRK and Sierra Club were represented by Justine Thompson with GreenLaw.

Forsyth Discharge into CRNRA:
In 2010, the Georgia EPD issued a permit to Forsyth County to discharge 6 million gallons per day of treated sewage from a new wastewater treatment facility within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. CRK challenged the effluent limits for fecal coliform bacteria and phosphorous in the permit as too weak based on violations of the Clean Water Act’s antidegradation rule; the limits were 100 times less protective of water quality than comparable limits of other discharges in the river.

In administrative court, we received a favorable decision that the new discharge would degrade water quality in the river park, that tighter permit limits for fecal coliform bacteria and phosphorous were technically and economically feasible, and therefore, the permit issued to the county was in violation of the Clean Water Act. On appeal in the Superior Court of Forsyth County and in the Georgia Court of Appeals. however, the administrative court’s decision was overturned and ultimately our petition for cert was denied by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2013. This case has been remanded to the Superior Court of Forsyth County, check back often more updates.

Stormwater Pollution Control


Prison Expansion by Georgia Department of Corrections:

Following many months trying to resolve serious erosion control violations and filling of wetlands at the expansion of Larmore Probation Center in south Fulton County, CRK filed a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections in early 2005. The Valley Lakes neighborhood, which has several lakes, fishing ponds and wetlands areas, was affected by sediment runoff from the 19-acre construction site. In October 2005, we reached a settlement with the GDOC, which required the removal of at least 70 truckloads of sediment from the impacted wetlands, planting of 225 large trees, thousands of native seedlings and 150 trees and shrubs in the wetlands, and a commitment from GDOC to pursue a conservation easement to protect about 8 acres of the site from future development. All components of this agreement, except the conservation easement, have been satisfied and the easement is expected to be finalized soon. See AJC article about this case.


Winmark Homes Development in Forsyth County:

In 2006, CRK investigated a construction site in Forsyth County after receiving a call from a concerned citizen. We found multiple violations of stormwater laws at a Winmark Homes development known as Champions Run, including the draining and filling of 1,800 linear feet of an intermittent stream. Frustrated with the lack of enforcement by government agencies, CRK filed a notice of intent to sue Winmark under federal law in June 2007 with pro bono assistance from Andrews, Knowles and Princenthal. No action was taken by the developer to fix the problems, so CRK moved to file a lawsuit in federal court. On the eve of filing, we learned that Winmark was in negotiations with the Corps of Engineers; they subsequently signed a settlement agreement that requires the complete restoration of the stream which was completed in January 2008. The developer was also required to pay a fine of $48,000 to the Georgia EPD.

Cumming Clears Land Without Proper Permits:
In 2008, the city of Cumming cleared a 22-acre tract of land less than 400 yards uphill from Lake Lanier, but failed to install many of the required best management practices to control the eroded soil which, flowed into the lake via Sawnee Creek. The city also destroyed more than 800 feet of an onsite stream, callously ignoring the same environmental laws that it is responsible for enforcing in its role as an “issuing authority.” Cumming was delegated to handle such permitting by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). These activities were conducted without proper state and federal permit. CRK’s attempt to work collaboratively with the city was rejected, so we filed a Clean Water Act action against the city, and successfully negotiated a settlement and consent decree was filed.

The terms of the settlement include: (1) immediate stabilization of the site; (2) restoration of a 50-foot stream buffer on each side of a 260 linear foot section of the damaged tributary to Sawnee Creek; (3) removal of sediment from the tributary to Sawnee Creek by bucket brigade; (4) use of pervious paving materials for at least 60% of parking lot square footage to allow rainwater to infiltrate into the ground; and (5) permission for UCR to regularly inspect the site.
In addition, UCR secured important supplemental environmental projects.

The city will pay: (1) up to $100,000 to restore a degraded stream in the Cumming City Park along with educational kiosks about the importance of stream buffers; (2) $40,000 to the Sawnee Mountain Foundation to support environmental education at the Sawnee Nature Preserve for 1,500 elementary students with an emphasis on underserved populations; (3) $10,000 to the Turner Environmental Law Clinic of Emory University School of Law to represent environmental groups on water quality protection matters in Georgia; and (4) more than $80,000 in UCR’s attorney’s fees and other litigation expenses.


Stream Buffer Protection


Connally Nature Park in East Point:

In 1999, CRK filed an administrative action against the Georgia EPD for its issuance of a buffer variance allowing the Fulton County School Board to pipe a stream on property in the city of East Point, where the Board planned to construct an elementary school. This small tributary to Utoy Creek bisects a forest with 200-year old oak trees, known locally as Connally Nature Park. It became clear during hearings before the Administrative Law Judge that EPD had not followed the law in the issuance of the variance. In lengthy settlement talks with the Board, we were able to secure some concessions regarding the footprint of the building and tree protection.

At the same time, local activists and land preservation groups led by The Conservation Fund were able to raise funds to secure an alternative site for the school and ultimately protect the forest and the stream as permanent green space under a conservation easement held by America’s Watershed Landkeeper, a supporting organization of CRK.


Timberland Subdivision in Harris County:

We learned about the illegal damming of a stream in a Harris County development project called Timberland subdivision in late 2007. The developer, Daniel Hodge, destroyed at least 1,670 linear feet of buffer and streams to build a dam and 9-acre amenity lake for a subdivision without any of the necessary local, state or federal permits. In March 2008, we sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the developer to force him to remove the dam and restore all impacted streams. The case was settled in December 2008 when the developer agreed to remove the dam, restore streams and fund several local environmental projects. CRK will monitor this project until the site is completely restored.

Charlie Brown Airport plans to clear cut 17 acres of stream buffer defeated:

In 2011, the Fulton County Airport – Charlie Brown applied to EPD for a variance to clear-cut 17 acres of vegetated stream buffer as part of a larger plan to clear 150 acres surrounding the airport runways. The 25-foot, state-protected buffer is critical to filtering stormwater runoff, cooling waterways with shade, and providing food and habitat for wildlife. CRK appealed the variance issued by EPD because the county failed to include, and EPD failed to require, plans for mitigation that would have helped offset the loss of the critical buffer functions.

After filing a petition to appeal the variance, and initial settlement discussions, EPD decided to withdraw the variance it had issued in the late summer. The county airport has pledged to revise its clearing plans to minimize impacts in the buffers and include appropriate mitigation to offset any buffer impacts, while meeting Federal Aviation Administration regulations. CRK has been assured that we will be involved in any future attempt by the airport to seek a buffer variance.

Instream Flow Protection


Georgia Power’s Plant Wansley:

In 2002, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled in CRK’s favor on our 2000 challenge to a water withdrawal permit issued to Georgia Power Company (GPC) for its coal-fired plant in Heard County on the Chattahoochee. The ALJ found that GPC did not need to withdraw 116 million gallons per day of water from the river, a doubling of their original withdrawal permit. GPC and the state EPD quickly filed briefs asking the ALJ to reconsider his ruling. In a surprising move, with little explanation, the ALJ reversed his earlier decision and upheld the permit.

CRK appealed the ALJ’s ruling to Fulton Superior Court, but the court affirmed the ALJ’s decision. Although we were disappointed with these final rulings, we achieved several results. Our action established that aggrieved citizens are water users protected by state law and have the legal right (standing) to appeal water withdrawal permits. GPC was required to augment its original permit application, which had not met state requirements. Finally, EPD made significant improvements to its permit review and evaluation process.


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