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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Olympic Hurdle: Chattahoochee River Pollution

Air Date: Week of

The Chattahoochee River runs through Atlanta, home of the forthcoming 1996 summer Olympic games. But the river that will be on display is subject to pollution from rapid development, and a deadline is fast approaching to reduce dumping; which could mean an end to the city's swift growth. Gwendolyn Glenn reports on the rise of Atlanta and its relationship with the Chattahoochee.


CURWOOD: After years of anticipation, Atlanta is finally just about ready to host the 1996 international Olympic games. The Olympics can boost the economy of a region for years afterwards, and the Atlantans are hoping that they, too, will see a post-Olympics development boom. But these dreams may vanish if Atlanta doesn't clear a big hurdle: a fast-approaching deadline to cut the pollution it dumps in the Chattahoochee River. Under state rules if the deadline is missed, the city would face a ban on new construction. From Atlanta, Gwendolyn Glenn reports.

(Flowing water)

GLENN: The Chattahoochee is a 436-mile river that flows from Georgia's northern mountains to the Florida line. The river is a major source of drinking water for state residents. It is also the place where hundreds of millions of gallons of treated wastewater are dumped each day into the Chattahoochee, and along with the wastewater comes the chemical phosphorous.

WIRD: Phosphorous is a nutrient, a fertilizer. Phosphorous is also a human waste.

GLENN: David Wird is with Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.

WIRD: When you and I flush our toilet, that's a source of phosphorous to the city. Its not harmful, its not a toxic. It's an aesthetic problem, it does not look good, it might interfere with some of the fishing. It certainly doesn't make it pleasant to swim through.

GLENN: In the late 1980's the state required all cities to reduce the amount of phosphorous in their wastewater to .75 milligrams per liter. All of the cities complied except Atlanta. As a result, several environmental groups, businesses, and individuals downstream of Atlanta are suing the city. Among them is Robert Hancock. He owns a large tract of land 60 miles south of Atlanta along the murky waters of the Chattahoochee.

HANCOCK: It's an open septic tank. And as a result, we have no community benefit from it whatsoever.

GLENN: Hancock recently built a 20-acre lake on his land so that his family can fish, swim, and raft during outings on the property, something they are unwilling to do in the Chattahoochee.

HANCOCK: I'm kind of bitter because if we were able to use the river for the same sort of recreational purposes, we would have no reason to build the lake. We'd have fishing and swimming and boating and those sorts of things. And that's not just my burden, it's a -- my entire county has spent millions of dollars building reservoirs to hold water for a county-wide water system because they can't take water in out of the Chattahoochee.

(Water being pumped)

GLENN: The R.M. Clayton plant in Atlanta is one of 3 along the Chattahoochee that has not been upgraded to reduce phosphorous. Because treatment plants like this one are much older than plants in other communities, the state granted Atlanta several extensions on meeting the phosphorous limits.

NUNGUESSER: In retrospect they probably gave us too much time.

GLENN: City wastewater manager Philip Nunguesser. He says when charges of environmental racism forced the city to scrap a plan to run the phosphorous-laden wastewater through an African American community, state officials lost patience.

NUNGUESSER: When the community opposition came up, it became a very difficult decision for us to make. Because it was such a difficult decision without pressure, the city didn't want to go through the pain of making that decision.

GLENN: Now the state is giving Atlanta until July the 4th to meet the phosphorous limit or face fines up to $100,000 a day and a citywide moratorium on development. The timing could not be worse. The summer Olympics open in Atlanta July 19th and Mayor Bill Campbell hopes the cities water problems will not hurt its chance to attract new business.

CAMPBELL: We're now meeting the .75 level on most days. So we feel confident that we'll be able to meet it by the July deadline of this year. Our post-Olympic development is going to proceed unabated.

GLENN: But David Wird from the states Environmental Protection Division is not so optimistic.

WIRD: There's no way that the city of Atlanta will meet the July deadline. The moratorium connection will kick in, and the fines will kick in. The city of Atlanta knew since 1989 the requirements of state law. They know they've been polluting the river for that long, so I think that it's -- it's fair punishment, and hopefully it will be effective to keep them on track.

(Mechanical sounds)

GLENN: For now, construction continues in Atlanta, but the possibility that the city may soon stop issuing building permits is making some developers nervous.

AKAVAN: We have to move a lot faster, we have to change our schedule dramatically in some cases, as we go through this process.

GLENN: Bauman Akavan develops residential properties in downtown Atlanta.

AKAVAN: Here we are on the eve of the Olympics, virtually, where Atlanta stands to have an exposure to several billion people across the globe, hopefully encouraging them to come and visit, to come and invest. This is probably a once ever opportunity. What are you going to say? Come here, invest, bring your plants, bring your offices, bring your headquarters, but don't flush the toilet? That's a very bad message.

GLENN: A building moratorium is already in effect in parts of midtown and southwest Atlanta, stemming from another water problem that is costing the city $20,000 a day in fines.

(Squealing sounds)

GLENN: The shrill sounds are coming from a conveyor at this treatment plant, which screens out trash and disinfects bacteria laden water from Atlanta's sewers and streets when it rains. The moratorium and fines went into effect because the southwest and midtown plants had not been completed or upgraded to process the runoff before it flows into the Chattahoochee. Chattahoochee River Keepers Fund executive director Sally Bethea says this problem has left the river unsightly, polluted, and filled with contaminated fish.

BETHEA: The fish in the river south of Atlanta show levels of chlordane, PCBs, mercury, and other toxic chemicals at such a level that it's -- that location is in the top 5 spots in the country for these chemicals in fish tissue.

All right, everybody. On behalf of the people of Atlanta we hereby break ground on a new Clear Creek treatment facility.

GLENN: City officials say they are working at a breakneck pace to build new plants and upgrade old facilities to avoid future penalties. If work on the plants that handle the street and sewage runoff is not completed by 2001, the fines will increase to $100,000 a day.

(Water running from the tap)

GLENN: In the meantime, city taxpayers will field the brunt of the wastewater treatment problems in the form of increased water bills, which analysts estimate could rise by 77% over the next few years. For Living on Earth, I'm Gwendolyn Glenn in Atlanta.



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