Augusta has spent years and millions of dollars trying to solve its pollution problems. In the end, salvation might be in the bulrushes.
The marsh-loving grass, along with cattails and other species, is being used on a broad scale to filter the city's treated sewage before it enters Butler Creek and the Savannah River downstream.
"We're not the first to do this," Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks said. "But our project is certainly one of the largest."
Augusta has a decades-old history of contaminating the river and is under a federal court order to reduce pollution and ammonia releases from the aging plant by 2001 or it will face stiff fines.
The city's "constructed wetlands" project, almost 75 percent complete, is one of the more creative assaults on pollution in this part of the state.
Although total costs for the 400-acre project could top $10 million, the man-made marshes are paying off, according to Sam Shepherd, engineering manager of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Engineering and Technical Support Program.
"A lot of it's very theoretical, but basically it's a natural system that uses plants and ponds to polish the effluent from the treatment plant," he said. "I think it's doing some of the things they want it to do."
Augusta has never been a city to ignore its pollution problems, said Mayor Bob Young, but they cannot be solved overnight.
"If you help it along, nature will correct the problems that man creates," he said. "This is one of those cases where we've created problems out there, and if we give nature a chance, the solution is out there in front of us."
Augusta also is working diligently to learn more about its regulatory future involving ozone and air pollution.
Augusta, along with Macon and Columbus, Ga., was informed by state regulators the city could become a nonattainment zone under the federal Clean Air Act because of particulate matter and ozone levels.
Ozone, an odorless gas that can cause or contribute to health problems, owes its origins to varied sources, such as industrial emissions, automobile exhaust and meteorological conditions.
Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce is involved in the three cities' air quality studies, designed to analyze pollution patterns to devise solutions.
Dr. Michael Chang of the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Urban and Regional Ecology said data gathered this summer in Augusta are still being studied but already have yielded interesting trends.
"Some of the things we did see is, when we're seeing southerly flow, we saw relatively clean conditions," Dr. Chang said. "As the wind shifted to a more northerly flow, we saw more elevated concentrations of pollutants."
Such data eventually will offer clues to the origins of Augusta's pollution, be it industries, car exhaust or drifting air from cities elsewhere.
"These pollutants can circulate around, so it's not a direct indication that something to the north is the culprit," he said. "But certainly, we saw there are some patterns tied to the direction of wind flow."
Preliminary findings will be unveiled during a meeting in Augusta on Aug. 31, Dr. Chang said.
In the long run, the information is important because it could help determine which areas fall - or don't fall - into future nonattainment zones that could include restrictions on industries and transportation.
Both projects illustrate that Augusta neither ignores nor neglects its pollution issues, said Gene Eidson, president of Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which operates Phinizy Swamp Nature Park on the same property as the artificial wetlands.
Dr. Eidson, who helped design the wetlands project, said such endeavors bring positive attention to the area, helping offset negative attention other pollution issues create.
"I think Augusta has taken on a leadership role in looking at innovative technology," he said. "I literally have spoken at untold numbers of workshops and seminars, and major cities throughout the Southeast are contacting us about similar technology. It makes Augusta look good."
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222.
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