In order to resolve a wastewater treatment permit violation they’re blaming on an act of God, Richmond Hill city officials signed a consent order from the Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 19.
The order was drafted by the EPD as a negotiated plea resulting from a dispute between the city and the EPD that arose when the EPD tried to impose a $25,000 fine when allegedly elevated levels of ammonia were detected at the city’s wastewater treatment plant last September. City officials objected to the fine, saying the ammonia levels were raised as a result of the "100-year storm" that occurred that month.
If approved, the consent order will mean a reduced settlement of $10,000 with no violation to go on record for the city. City Manager Mike Melton said OMI (Operations Management International, the city’s contracted public works agent that overseas the treatment center) has agreed to pay half with the other half to come out of the city’s water and sewer fund.
The consent order has been sent back to the EPD and will be final after EPD Director Carol Couch signs it.
"Although we recognize the elevated levels of ammonia, it was not our fault as it was caused by 13 and a half inches of rain. It was caused by an act of God to our natural facility," Melton said. "This is not a fine or a penalty, but rather a negotiated settlement to resolve this issue."
Melton say the EPD has restrictions on ammonia levels due to potential effects on ammonia being discharged into receiving streams."The current permit only allows us to discharge 1.9 milligrams per liter of ammonia. After the September storm, we were discharging five or six milligrams per liter," Melton said.
"However, we have undergone a study that says we can discharge up to 15 milligrams per liter without causing any environmental issues," he continued. "We are in the process of working with the EPD to change the limits."
Melton said the elevated ammonia levels began in September, but those levels also "carried over into October, November and December before the plant was able to recover."
Melton said there is no reason for the public to be concerned about this issue and consent orders are "pretty common practice. We’re very fortunate here in Richmond Hill to where we have very few violations of our wastewater treatment program. We can’t control the weather though and having an all natural system has made us subject to weather."
The city received a "Trendsetter Award" from Georgia Trend Magazine last year for innovation in creating an all-natural wastewater treatment facility. The 500-acre facility, which doubles as a wildlife sanctuary, is located near Sterling Creek.
Melton said the current rain conditions, caused by Fay, are not strong enough to have the same effect.
In an unrelated water issue, coliform bacteria was recently reported in the city’s drinking water supply. Further testing, however, indicated that city water is coliform-free.
City officials say there is no reason for concern and they believe the sample itself was contaminated, which could have resulted from a contaminated test tube.