After years of study and negotiation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft of its broad plan to redefine how much waste industries and municipalities can dump into the Savannah River.
The pending changes -- which will require Augusta and most of its major industries to reduce certain types of pollution -- were required under a settlement to a 1994 Sierra Club lawsuit in which the EPA concluded that water in Savannah Harbor is deficient in dissolved oxygen.
The agency's remedy was to limit oxygen-depleting discharges, including wastewater released in Augusta, 200 miles upstream.
Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said it is too early to determine the precise effect of the new "total maximum daily load" rule but acknowledged that there will be definite effects on the city's Messerly Wastewater Plant -- a major discharger.
"We know it will require a reduction of wasteload, but they are kind of leaving it up to the dischargers to see if they can work something out," he said. "We know how much it has to be reduced, but we haven't split it up among the dischargers."
The proposed rule focuses on oxygen-demanding wastes found in most wastewater discharges and on ammonia.
Augusta's wastewater plant is permitted to discharge 46 million gallons of wastewater daily. That amount could contain 11,534 pounds of oxygen-demanding material and about 6,690 pounds of ammonia.
Wiedmeier said the plan has alternatives that could be explored in situations where it might be impossible to make drastic reductions in waste disposal.
"It leaves the door open for some creative ways to comply," he said.
"If they come out and say we have to cut our oxygen-demanding discharge by a certain percent, we could do it at the plant -- but it might make more sense for us to pay for part of an oxygen-injection system to improve water quality down in the harbor."
Regardless of the strategies used to achieve compliance, environmental groups say the plan will bring needed improvements to water quality.
"It would decrease pollution loads significantly," said Tonya Bonitatibus, the executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper.
The EPA's current draft, she said, would require a huge reduction in oxygen-demanding materials -- from a current load of 601,347 pounds a day to an eventual level ranging from 80,000 to 250,000 pounds a day.
Because almost half of the current load originates in the Augusta area, the pending new rules will offer factories and municipalities an opportunity to re-examine their equipment and seek out better ways to reduce pollution.
"There are many opportunities up and down the river, from outdated sewer plants to older factories that could be upgraded," Bonitatibus said.
Many major industries are also monitoring the EPA's plan.
"While levels have not yet been determined, we anticipate that the ruling will require that we make changes to our operations to ensure compliance," said Jeremy Pearson, an environmental manager at International Paper's Augusta mill, whose permit allows 30,000 pounds per day of oxygen-demanding wastes -- the largest volume among Augusta-area users.
Georgia environmental regulators placed most discharge permit renewals on hold in recent years to await the EPA's plan, which includes a "calculator" that can help determine how the river's assimilation capacity can be shared equitably.
"It's a very complicated tool but also a very good tool that can be used by the dischargers," said Jeff Larson, the assistant chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Water Protection Branch.
"It's actually a mini model of sorts."
That calculator offers dischargers in Augusta more leeway in waste volume by taking into account the distance it must travel -- and the changes it would undergo -- as it flows from Augusta to Savannah Harbor.
"If you put a pound of BOD (oxygen-demanding waste) in the river in Augusta, it is looked at differently than if you did the same thing in Savannah, just upstream from the harbor," said Allen Saxon, Augusta's assistant utilities director for wastewater. "Some of what Augusta puts in is assimilated before it ever gets to Savannah, and the calculator takes into account what happens as it travels."
The city of Augusta, he added, has invested about $84 million in its wastewater program in recent years as part of a long-term effort to improve efficiency.
The plan, if adopted, will allow changes to occur gradually.
"EPA and EPD both realize this may be a prolonged thing, so they are not putting in a timetable now," he said. "This will be a negotiated thing."