- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - It was a problem decades in the making: raw sewage flowing into Proctor Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River that winds through some of the most impoverished parts of Atlanta.

As often as 80 times a year, rainstorms caused the overburdened sewer systems to overflow downtown.

City leaders and residents alike cheered seven years ago when, under a federal decree, Atlanta officials completed a $112 million project that untangled and rerouted the city’s water and sewer lines to stop pollution in the Proctor Creek basin. It was a pivotal moment in righting one of Atlanta’s most toxic wrongs.

There’s just one problem: They missed some spots. Water quality testing has revealed a small but lingering amount of E. coli bacteria in Proctor Creek.

The finding has sent Department of Watershed Management workers back underground to find the sewer pipes that are still sending human waste to the waterway.

The ongoing problems at Proctor Creek highlight the complexity of fixing Atlanta’s notoriously troubled water and sewer infrastructure, a system so neglected that it fell under federal oversight in the 1990s following a lawsuit by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

This time around, the Riverkeeper watchdog group says it’s sympathetic to Watershed’s predicament.

“In a city like this, where you have 1,500 miles of sewer lines, it’s not easy (to find all the pipes),” said Sally Bethea, head of the environmental nonprofit. “Underground, it’s like spaghetti.”

But some of those who live around Proctor Creek, which begins underground near the Georgia Dome and snakes west through neighborhoods including Vine City, English Avenue and Bankhead, aren’t nearly as understanding.

Tony Torrence, an English Avenue resident and president of the Community Improvement Association, an environmental justice neighborhood group, is frustrated by the continued failures. This is just one of many water-related issues in his community as Proctor Creek remains plagued by other contaminants, trash and flooding, he said.

“If you fixed the whole system, why do we still have problems?” said Torrence, who works with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance on water quality testing in his community. “It leaves us at risk every day. We smell it. We breathe it. We live it.”

Fixing the Proctor Creek problem was complex because residents there used to be served by a combined sewer system - a large pipe through which both stormwater and raw sewage flowed to a treatment center. But when it rained, stormwater overwhelmed the system, causing it to overflow sewage into the creek.

Under the federal decree, workers had to separate the stormwater and sewage into two separate pipes - a massive undertaking that required them to comb through thousands of underground connections.

“No one had mapped it. There are no good records,” said Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina, who joined the department in 2011. “Even today we can’t tell everyone where every pipe is. … When houses were built, they connected wherever they wanted.”

Engineers located and separated 970 connections when they first tried to fix the problem, she said.

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