- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

WATKINSVILLE, Ga. (AP) - Water from Oconee County’s Calls Creek Water Reclamation Facility flowed clear and clean last week, as workers have fixed most of the problems outlined in a scathing report on how the wastewater treatment plant has been operated, said Oconee County Water Operations Manager Mickey Baughcum, who was tending the plant Friday.

Two employees who had worked there resigned last month, leaving the county short of workers qualified to operate the around-the-clock facility as a string of spills from the plant continued with a May 29 incident. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of untreated wastewater were spilled when a coupling on a 12-inch pipe gave way, Baughcum said. The break sent brownish-gray wastewater cascading down a hill that leads to Calls Creek, he said Friday as he showed the spill site to some visitors to the plant.

“We happened to be on site” when the coupling broke, Baughcum said. Within minutes, with 65 turns of a knob, workers were able to close a valve and halt the flow, he said.

Since then, the plant has been operating well, according to Baughcum.

“Right now, it’s Cadillac-ing,” he said, adding that the recent spills are “very not-typical of this plant.”

Baughcum took time Friday to give a tour of the plant when two members of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, Bruno Giri and Richard Milligan, visited on the spur of the moment, along with retired Oconee County science teacher Vicki Soutar and friend Judy Burdette.

The all-volunteer Upper Oconee Watershed Network has been monitoring Athens-area stream health for decades, periodically testing for pollution, sediment and fecal bacteria. Soutar and her high school students also have been monitoring Calls Creek off and on for years.

Giri, Milligan and Soutar spent Friday morning taking water samples at various points on Calls Creek above and below the water reclamation facility. They also took a sample of the water coming directly out of the treatment plant. They plan to have the samples tested in a University of Georgia lab for bacteria that would indicate human or animal fecal material, said Giri, a professional water scientist. Results are expected this week.

Meanwhile, Oconee County blogger Lee Becker, a UGA journalism professor, uncovered documents last week showing the state

Environmental Protection Division had notified Oconee County administrators and commissioners in December that record-keeping and testing procedures at the plant were substandard. That notification came months before a downstream property owner stepped forward in April with a video showing what looked like raw sewage flowing out of the plant into Calls Creek, a tributary of the Oconee River.

On May 26, about a month after Oconee County Commission Chairman Melvin Davis saw the video, he announced the resignation of two workers at the plant and released a seven-page report prepared by Dacula consultant Bob Sheldon during the month. Davis and Chris Thomas, head of Oconee County’s utility department, said Friday they thought earlier problems had been corrected before the landowner showed Davis the video of wastewater going into Calls Creek in April.

Sheldon found serious problems, including equipment he said hadn’t been operational for more than a year. The county’s consultant said some important pieces of equipment, such as belt that presses water out of sewage sludge, had been broken for a year.

The equipment hadn’t been down that long, Thomas said, contending that as recently as this fall, the equipment had been operating.

Sheldon’s report also noted serious problems at the county’s other wastewater treatment facility, the Rocky Branch Land Application System, including “shock loads,” coming downstream from a Bogart business. Shock loads are sudden quantities of heavily polluted wastewater that may be too large for a treatment system to handle. Problems at the LAS plant will continue until the Bogart business gets a state permit to pretreat the wastewater it sends to the Calls Creek facility, according to Sheldon.

The problems noted by an EPD inspector at Calls Creek in December were unrelated to the recent spills, Thomas said.

Since the May 29 spill caused by the separated pipe, the effluent coming out of the Calls Creek plant has not been problematic regarding permitted limits for bacteria and other pollutants, according to Thomas.

“All the results we’ve been getting are well within our limits,” said Thomas, who has been doing the lab testing at the plant after the resignation of the plant manager last month.

Performance at both plants will improve markedly in the future, but how soon that happens remains to be seen. The county is moving to build a parallel plant at Calls Creek with a different treatment method, Thomas said. Currently, the Calls Creek facility uses membranes to filter out pollutants early in the treatment process. In the parallel plant, membranes will be employed near the end of the process, which means the membranes will last longer, according to Thomas.

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Information from: Athens Banner-Herald, http://www.onlineathens.com

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