The city of Richmond Hill had to, in accordance with EPD guidelines, report a "major spill" at the Sterling Creek wastewater treatment plant.
The average weekly discharge is 7.5 million gallons. Last week, the plant discharged 12.7 million gallons.
Officials say the "spill" was a planned event as they work toward solving an ongoing environmental dilemma at the plant.
The plant has been in and out of compliance with the EPD over raised ammonia levels, but the cause of it has baffled officials.
At first, the cause was thought to be the "100-year storm" or 13 and a half inches of rain, that occurred in September of 2007.When the raised levels continued well after the storm, it was blamed on excess buildup of waste in the plant’s lagoon. When the raised levels continued after removing the waste, Richmond Hill underwent a study to find out what the root cause really is.
That study was recently completed and points to the buildup of decayed matter, such as dead plants within the connected wetlands. Last week, city employees drained a portion of the wetlands and went in with heavy equipment to clear it out.
This process directly caused the plant’s weekly effluent into Elbow Swamp to increase by just over 50 percent more than it usually does. By doing so, Richmond Hill is required by law to report the additional output as a "spillage."
"We don’t like to see levels that high, but we understand exactly what they’re doing," Scott Southwick with the Georgia EPD said.
Southwick complimented city officials for taking action by taking the proper steps in figuring out why their ammonia levels have been so high. He said the expert the city hired to investigate the dilemma is an esteemed wetlands expert, and city officials "seem to be taking every necessary step to solve this problem."
Southwick said the plant met permit levels in March and April, but exceeded ammonia levels in May and most likely will for June.
In lieu of a fine and violation for exceeding ammonia levels, the city reached a negotiated settlement of $35,000. Southwick said the city faces being fined between $1,000 to $2,000 a month if they do not get back into compliance, but he is optimistic that the city’s current plan of action will be successful.
City public works supervisor David Buchanan said clearing out the wetlands will not only get the city back into compliance, but it should also "revitalize the wetlands so the city can get another 10-12 years out of it."
Buchanan noted that last year's waste removal needed to be done anyway. That project entailed 700 tons of waste removed that had built up over 11 years and came with a price tag just over $200,000.
Buchanan said the plant is on track to receive a full upgrade within the next couple of years, which will double the size of the facility as well as the capacity. This is being done to meet projected population growth. Currently the plant’s capacity is 1.5 million gallons of day of discharge. The upgrade is projected to support 3 million gallons.
The city received a "Trendsetter Award" from Georgia Trend Magazine in 2007 for innovation in creating an all-natural wastewater treatment facility. The facility, which doubles as a wildlife sanctuary, is on a 500-acre tract near Sterling Creek.