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South Fulton boom on verge of bust

Sewage capacity shrinking as home construction grows

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Ever since the state effectively shut down growth in north Fulton County with a moratorium on new sewer hook ups, south Fulton has been called the Promised Land for metro Atlanta developers.

The expected boom in development in south Fulton was predicted to be so drastic as to counter-balance the growth explosion in north Fulton and possibly even shift the political dynamics of the metro area.

But the Land of Milk and Honey has a distinctly unsweet smell -- too much sewage.

The developers racing for land in south Fulton may overload a sewer system already on the brink of literally overflowing.

So far this year, the Camp Creek treatment plant in south Fulton violated water quality laws for eight months by discharging 14.9 million gallons of sewage more than it's allowed to, according to state Environmental Protection Division documents.

"It's obvious from [EPD] reports that there could be a water quality problem with the high [sewage] flows south Fulton continues to experience, even when we're in a drought," says Abby Jordan, director of Green South Fulton. "My hope is [county planners] are tracking building permits and that they'll be willing, if necessary, to take the next step and let developers know ahead of time that the area is reaching its sewage capacity. The county has a responsibility to developers and to protect water quality in the river."

But instead of managing new home construction, Fulton County officials avoided another EPD citation for the month of October by pumping 1 million gallons per day to a Clayton County treatment plant -- something county officials said they'd do only in an emergency, according to a weekly status report on the Camp Creek treatment plant dated March 29.

South Fulton's sewage problems won't be that easy to fix much longer, ironically, because of sewer problems in north Fulton. There, developers built homes faster than the county could expand the sewage infrastructure, prompting EPD on March 23 to block any more connections to the county sewer system.

Entire subdivisions were shut down in mid-construction. Developers simply re-aimed their bulldozers toward south Fulton.

Fulton County commissioners have approved 47 new developments for south Fulton since January 2000. Those developments call for the construction of 9,343 single-family homes and 3,590 apartments or townhouses, according to figures from the Fulton County Department of Environment and Community Development. (There are also another 2,604 units that weren't designated as townhomes, apartments or single-family houses.)

The good news is that the Fulton County Commission last week approved a $127 million contract that calls for the expansion of the Camp Creek sewage treatment plant in south Fulton.

The expansion of the Camp Creek plant will enable south Fulton to handle 24 million gallons of sewage per day. The plant is now permitted to process 13 million gallons per day.

The bad news is that the company building the expansion, Azurix North America, will be racing against homebuilders and the waste that'll come from the families planning to move into the 15,000 new homes on tap for south Fulton.

And, if everything goes as scheduled, the expanded plant should be completed in about three to four years. That means some of those new subdivisions on the drawing board will be completed before the treatment plant, some even before groundbreaking.

Just how is the county going to handle this mounting problem?

"How we address that is how we did it in north Fulton," says Deputy Fulton County Manager Terry Todd. "If the plant capacity is exceeded in volume, that doesn't mean we will have permit violations in regards to other permit parameters."

In other words, it's not a big deal as long as things like phosphorus, lead and fecal bacteria levels don't get too high.

But Todd does say that the more flow that goes into a treatment plant, the more of a chance there is for a backup, overflow or something else to go wrong. And that's what has EPD officials worried.

"The flow has increased to a point where it is of concern, and EPD is currently evaluating the flow increase at Camp Creek," says Jeff Larson, manager of the Permitting, Compliance and Enforcement Program in EPD's Water Protection Branch.

Fulton County is currently under a consent order because of the chronic problems at the Camp Creek plant. The order dictates that whenever the plant releases too much sewage, the county is fined.

Rest assured, because of the county government's wait-and-see attitude, water quality in south Fulton won't be getting any better until the Camp Creek plant expansion is complete. Two weeks ago, CL reported that on Oct. 29, officials EPD began the process of fining Fulton County $75,000 for two spills (on June 28 and March 15) that sent 2.2 million gallons of sewage -- some of it raw and untreated -- into Camp Creek.

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