A proposed wastewater treatment plant in eastern Liberty County is unlikely to significantly affect the health of the Laurel View River, a recent study suggests, but longtime opponents of the project remain skeptical.
Officials with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division told interested parties at a recent stakeholders meeting that the effects of treated wastewater discharge from the plant the Liberty County Development Authority hopes to build near Tradeport East are ‘de minimis’ — meaning the levels of ammonia and dissolved oxygen that can be found in a maximum load of 3 million gallons per day of treated wastewater would have little effect on levels of the same presently found in the Laurel View River.
“There were no changes to the parameters that we analyzed — there was no significant impact on those background standards,” Jeff Larson, assistant branch chief for the EPD Watershed Protection Branch, said later in an interview with the Coastal Courier.
During the September field study, EPD staff measured tide heights, water depth, concentrations of dissolved oxygen and ammonia, and looked at the speed at which materials move out of the Laurel View River and into St. Catherines Sound and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. Based on characteristics of the river’s natural state, EPD staff created a model under which to predict the effects of a maximum discharge load of 3 million gallons of treated wastewater per day.
Larson said among the findings, the depth profile showed dissolved oxygen to be well-mixed from top to bottom, meaning oxygen is available in upper and lower levels of the river. Species living near the surface and near the bottom require dissolved oxygen to thrive.
The study also measured the amount of freshwater in the system — the incoming tide contributes saltwater, while rainfall and flows from the Canoochee contribute freshwater. This brackish mix creates a profile of microorganisms and nutrients that allow multiple unique species of fish, shellfish and plant life to thrive.
The study of tidal flows and velocity of the tidal cycle included using a dye marker and drogue, which Larson said determined that freshwater flow in the river is about 400 cubic feet per second.
“We did a dye study to show the tidal dynamics,” he said. “The dye marker was flushed out within 21 days. There was some concern [from residents opposing the plant] that the material stayed around and was aggregated, but it doesn’t do that.”
According to the results summary, maximum outgoing velocities, measured at mid-tide, were higher than incoming maximum velocities.
“Yardsticks are used to determine high and low tide. It’s an easy way and a very accurate way to get high and low tide and determine the volume for the system, and use that throughout the model,” Larson said. “The yardstick placement was to not only determine amplitude of the tide but also when we needed to sample, so we had to measure high, low, mid and slack tides.”
The results come as good news for the Liberty County Development Authority, which has been working on design plans for more than two years and first discussed the idea of a new plant in the eastern part of the county as part of its 2006 master plan.
Development authority CEO Ron Tolley pointed out that though the study required testing at the plant’s proposed maximum load, it is unlikely the plant would need to treat and discharge 3 million gallons from the get-go.
“Some people seem to have the fixation that 3 million gallons will happen every day, but we’re not going to build the full-scale plant initially,” he said. “With the downturn in the economy, many residential projects that were knocking on our door, asking us when we were gonna build this, have gone away.”
Tolley said the county’s service delivery area for the proposed plant covers roughly 16,000 acres, but in the first phase the principal customers will include operators at Tradeport East, Hunting Club, the old Dorchester Consolidated School and several properties adjacent to those boundaries.
Additionally, Tolley said, the primary intended use of the treated water will be for landscape application.
“The discharge they studied was the maximum,” he said. “We would be putting that through the irrigation system for landscaping at Tradeport East, though we do have a larger water service delivery area. If [drainage] did occur, it would be seldom, because the intent is to use it for reclamation.
“We already know what we’re currently using for landscaping, so we have a good idea for existing usage,” the CEO said.
Project manager Wayne Murphy with C2HM Hill confirmed the reuse intent and the amount they expect to be treated in the early stages of the plant’s operations.
“We expect in the plant’s first phase to see 250,000 gallons a day out of that. That will be max capacity for several years — actually it will be less than that,” Murphy said.
The plant will be built to utilize “the most advanced treatment process available,” he said. “It’s a membrane treatment plant that utilizes screening, bioprocesses and then a membrane for suspended particles, then UV disinfection. At that point, we will be meeting the discharge requirements. This allows us to meet the reuse quality standard.”
Murphy said once the wastewater is treated, it is moved to a 1.5 million-gallon ground storage tank. If the tank isn’t full, irrigation demand will draw from the tank. During wet days, it would be moved to and remain in the tank as long as it isn’t full; the permit will only allow for landscape application on days without precipitation.
“Based on our current analysis, if the plant had been online in 2009, they would not have had to discharge any treated water in all of 2009. If you look at the demand, they would not have had to discharge. This is based on early numbers and meter readings, and we are now preparing to validate that information,” he said.
“Since it was a relatively dry year and since the flows are relatively low now,” discharge seems unlikely, Murphy said. “It’s important to note that we’re looking at this based on monthly averages because that’s how they’re being reported.”
To further limit the necessity for discharge, the development authority and C2HM Hill are looking at the possibility of non-potable water reuse, in which treated water can be used for cooler and boiler water, and for flushing.
Murphy said Georgia is looking into its plumbing code standards to allow for non-potable water reclamation, and they are working with the state to see if it will come to fruition.
Whether the plant discharges 250,000 gallons or 3 million gallons, opponents like Chandra Brown say there’s more to the problem than quantity — it’s also a question of quality, and one that she and others feel hasn’t been adequately addressed.
“I was at the stakeholder meeting and I still have a number of concerns, but the biggest is that they don’t account for all forms of nitrogen found in the waterway,” Brown said. “I believe this [plant] would result in degradation. I’m working with experts to understand what was done in this study.”
As executive director of the nonprofit Ogeechee Riverkeeper group, Brown is one of dozens of residents and river-protection supporters who are fighting the permit process. She said she wants the EPD and the state to take a closer look at the effects that nitrates and phosphorus will have on the health of the river.
“They’re required to monitor for nitrogen but when you have a lot a water (with dissolved oxygen), that likely moves to nitrate. They are not looking for nitrate,” she said. “They took a small fraction of what the plant was going to contribute. Their study was not designed to look at nitrates,” she said.
Ammonia, one form of nitrogen, is examined in the study but ammonia itself is broken down by biological processes into nitrate, which Brown said has detrimental effects on aquatic wildlife.
“Nitrate turns the river green with algae. It’s responsible for excessive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay,” Brown said. “It will kill off shellfish and small fish populations. It lowers the oxygen levels and makes it more difficult for other creatures to live.”
A major roadblock for this type of monitoring, according to the nonprofit director, is that the state doesn’t require nitrate levels to be monitored in order for plant permits to be issued, so the plant itself doesn’t monitor for them. “The big flaw is the failure to require them to monitor for nitrates,” Brown said. The permit limits are only for ammonia. They also aren’t requiring them to test for phosphorous.”
High levels of phosphorus are often considered the prime culprit in excessive algae blooms that can choke out fish populations. Dead algae are decomposed by bacteria on the bottom of a lake or river, which depletes the oxygen in the water.
Brown is not entirely opposed to developments like the treatment plant; she’d rather see new and improved infrastructure in the region replace older, outdated facilities. “It’s our position that new infrastructure is desperately needed along the coast, as well as throughout southeast Georgia,” she said. However, these old plants need to be decommissioned.”
The next step for the EPD, Larson said, is to review comments and concerns and incorporate them into the agency’s assessment of the project. “We have not made a determination on this [permit] yet,” he said.
“We’re in the stage of looking at all comments from the 2009 hearing and getting a list of responses, because we’re responsible to the public to answer their questions. What the state is doing is looking at comments and will review those with the LCDA … We will look at possible revisions based on responses to those concerns.”
If the plant’s permit is approved, Brown said her organization and other opponents have a couple avenues for addressing it. One is to have the Laurel View River declared an outstanding natural resource, which could provide it with some state protection. The other is through the courts.
“There are some legal remedies if the EPD chooses to move forward,” she said.