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Cut the crap

Atlanta's next mayor better start talking about the city's $3 billion sewer problem -- before your wallet gets sucked down the drain

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A careless construction worker probably dumped the paint can that created the bottleneck beneath Crane Road. It worked its way into a 15-inch sewer pipe under the residential street off Lenox Road in Buckhead, and lodged in a vulnerable spot along the old concrete line.

City workers came out Jan. 30 to figure out why the pipe was clogged. But the line caved in while they were trying to reach the can.

What followed was to raw sewage what fireworks are to the Fourth of July. Fountains of effluent shot-gunned into the street. Human waste broke in waves toward both curbs. And for 48 hours, putrid wastewater poured down a concrete ditch that empties into Indian Creek, 50 feet away.

The Crane Road collapse was just one more spot where the flash of Atlanta's surface met the flush of the city's decrepit underground. Atlanta's sanitary sewers -- the lines that are supposed to transport human waste to treatment plants -- cave in three or four times a year. They spring an average of one leak a day. And a separate system of antiquated combined sewers overflows around 60 times a year.

All told, Atlanta's sewer woes amount to the biggest public works crisis since Sherman left town. It probably will take 15 years of concerted effort and at least $3 billion to fix, which could mean sewer rates that triple by 2007. And it certainly will take leadership on the issue from the city's next mayor.

The scary thing is that the two leading mayoral candidates this year seem as eager to avoid talking about sewers as their predecessors have been to push for hard solutions. That could make it more difficult for the next mayor to sell costly sewer projects to voters and the City Council. And a failure to finally settle on some solutions could, in turn, create even bigger problems for the city.

Shirley Franklin, the leading money raiser in the mayor's race, admits she hasn't even been fully briefed on the issue.

"What I know is what I've heard discussed at the forums," Franklin says.

Her leading opponent isn't much more eager to talk effluent. City Council President Robb Pitts is a 24-year veteran of the council. When asked what Pitts has done to solve Atlanta's sewer woes, his spokesman fails to point to anything.

Gloria Bromell-Tinubu -- who's running a distant third in polls and fund raising -- can at least take credit for raising the issue in forums and interviews. But city sewer experts argue that the position she favors actually could delay the solution.

Granted, sewers aren't a sexy issue. But there are people who have watched the leaks and overflows for more than 20 years, and who can count all the way up to $3 billion. They know what the issue means, and they're anxious to see the politicians address it.

"There's not an issue more important to the city," says Joe Beasley, regional director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "And if the candidates cannot comment on it, if they're ignorant to the issue, they shouldn't be in office."

Theoretically at least the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act was supposed to solve all the problems. It mandated that streams be clean enough to fish and swim in by 1983, a date never met by Atlanta nor by a host of other cities.

But other cities did make significant progress. In the mid-1970s, the EPA operated a grant program to help municipalities comply with the Clean Water Act.

"They were giving out money to anyone who wanted to build sewer plants," says Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Atlanta didn't take advantage, and in the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan converted the grant program to loans.

During the same decade, Mayor Andrew Young's administration received waivers from the federal government to allow sewer overflows every time it rained. Atlanta needed them. The waivers put little pressure on the Young administration to stop polluting.

"Why get money if you don't have to obey the law?" Herring asks.

Atlanta did complete the $168 million Three Rivers Water Quality Management Program during the Young administration. It was then the largest capital improvement project in the city's history, and it partially cleaned up the South River, which at one point, could barely sustain even hardy life forms. Like so many "solutions" in the history of Atlanta's sewers, however, even the upside turns out down: Many now see the South River project as a pitifully small thumb in a large, leaky dike. After all, the river is still plenty polluted, and part of the project simply involved shifting waste from the South River basin into the Chattahoochee.

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