Marion Harris said he sometimes feels more like a police detective than technical superintendent for a sewage treatment plant with 200,000 customers.
The sewage -- 32 million gallons every day -- often contains things that aren't supposed to be there: oil, grease, heavy metals, even toxic chemicals such as benzene and toluene.
Part of Mr. Harris' job is to figure out where it comes from.
The problems usually are attributable to a mere 44 customers -- the major industries whose sewage makes up a fourth of Messerly Wastewater Plant's daily flow.
"They're the ones you need to keep an eye on," said Mr. Harris, who supervises Augusta's industrial pretreatment program. "It's the nature of their business."
Industries that use the city's sewage system are self-regulating, meaning they must report their own monitoring results to the city. Usually, they comply.
But when they don't, the city gets in trouble with state regulators.
During 1998, the city detected a record 150 violations by Augusta industries, compared to 67 in 1997, 36 in 1996 and 27 in 1995, according to plant records reviewed by The Augusta Chronicle.
Two thirds of the industries had at least one violation last year, with four companies -- Castleberry Foods, EKA Chemicals, Environmental Compliance and King Manufacturing -- being in significant noncompliance due to multiple, ongoing violations, records show.
City officials said the rising numbers are due to better enforcement and a new pretreatment ordinance adopted in October 1997 that tightened restrictions on industrial sewage.
Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulators, however, said the city's efforts to improve the program are long overdue -- and still insufficient.
State officials notified the city in 1991 that federal and state laws required stricter pretreatment regulations within a year, said Jeff Larson, the state agency's permitting, compliance and enforcement manager.
In 1994, the city had not complied and state officials sent a notice of noncompliance. In 1995 -- and again in 1996 -- the Environmental Protection Division filed similar notices.
In October 1997, the state agency approved the city's new pretreatment program as meeting the new requirements. "It was a very long time between 1991 and when they finally got them approved," Mr. Larson said.
Many problems prior to the new ordinance involved permits issued to industries limiting how much of certain chemicals their sewage can contain.
Although domestic sewage is recycled easily through the city's Messerly Wastewater Plant on Doug Barnard Parkway, industrial chemicals can kill waste-digesting bacteria and disrupt the plant.
When the plant is unable to properly treat sewage, the effluent released into Butler Creek and the Savannah River violates water pollution laws -- and the city is fined or punished with consent orders.
Many of Augusta's pretreatment permits before 1997 were ineffective in preventing problems, according to state records.
For example, Monsanto produces phosphorous salts and manufactures phosphoric acid. But the company's city-issued permit to send wastewater into the sewage system had no limit on those chemicals, leaving the city powerless to act when a major phosphate spill (30,000 pounds) occurred in March 1995, causing problems at the treatment plant.
Finances have impact
Augusta city government's troubled financial history also played a role in industrial pollution problems.
In a July 1995 report in which state officials found 27 percent of the sewer system's industrial users weren't complying with requirements, the Environmental Protection Division inspector wrote that "lack of funds and operating capital" were among the root causes.
Most recently, the state agency issued a broad administrative order criticizing the city's handling of everything from industrial pretreatment to disposal of sewage sludge.
The city is appealing that order, claiming it is too severe, although one primary directive -- ordering the city to devise a capital improvement plan to upgrade inferior equipment -- is under way.
Tom Wiedmeier, Augusta's assistant director of utilities, said the state is placing more emphasis on pretreatment compliance than in past years.
"They used to come in, review the program and -- based on stuff I've seen -- say it's OK," Mr. Wiedmeier said. "In 1995, they turned up the scrutiny of the program. It changed a lot."
Although the number of industrial violations has increased, Mr. Wiedmeier said it is due to better enforcement -- and not bad behavior by industries.
"Our relationship with industry is just like EPD's with us," he said. "There are occurrences where plants spill things, it gets down the drain and into the sewer. If they report it and it's clearly an accident, we work with them. I'm not interested in putting industry out of business."
Since 1982, according to state records, Augusta has been issued 10 consent and administrative orders for various wastewater-related deficiencies, and has paid fines totaling $203,690.
Jim Sommerville, compliance and enforcement unit coordinator for the Environmental Protection Division, said the Georgia Legislature typically allocates an amount equal to collected fines to the state Hazardous Waste Trust Fund, used to finance toxic waste cleanups.
Industry rarely fined
Although Augusta has paid hefty fines for sewage-related violations, the city rarely -- if ever -- fines the industries it regulates.
Under current programs, the city will issue a notice of violation for an initial offense. Repeat offenders can receive an administrative order setting up goals and timetables for corrective action.
"We've never taken anyone to court in the three years I've been here," Mr. Harris said.
However, the worst violators -- those in significant noncompliance -- get their names published in the newspaper once a year.
"I guess it's working," Mr. Harris said. "We had eight last year and only four this year."
In extreme cases, dumping chemicals into the sewage lines can result in a cease and desist order against further use of the city sewage system. That's what happened in January with Alternate Energy Resources when the company discharged potentially flammable chemicals into sewer lines.
Today, Augusta monitors each industry through a pretreatment program that requires industries to test their sewage to make sure it is clean enough to pass safely through the city's treatment process.
"We do make visits, but most of it's up to them," Mr. Harris said.
Augusta, like other Georgia cities, must adhere to state and federal pollution control laws, Mr. Larson said.
"What we saw in the audit is the city needs to improve its enforcement with industrial users to ensure the numbers of problems -- and the examples that we saw -- are resolved," he said.
"Good enforcement should escalate through warnings, then up to an enforcement action that can include a penalty," he said. "That will get the industry's attention."
Mr. Wiedmeier said Augusta is working to make industries more compliant, and is even evaluating options -- such as hiring a private contractor to operate the system -- to improve Augusta's environmental standing.
But fines and court action, he said, aren't necessarily the best ways.
"The way we've operated in the past is if it's not harming the treatment plant and we're being adequately compensated for treating the waste, it's not a severe crisis," Mr. Wiedmeier said.
Is the city tough enough on violators?
"I think so," Mr. Wiedmeier said. "If Shapiro's has -- depending on magnitude -- a lot of continuing violations or Castleberry has oil and grease violations, I don't think it's necessary to try to shut people down. We'd rather see them taking steps to come into full compliance."
Robert Pavey covers environmental issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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