Pollution Of Chattahoochee River

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Pollution of the Chattahoochee River has been a source of public concern and demands for government action for decades. Flowing from the northeast part of the state through the Atlanta metropolitan area to Columbus, GA, and then on to the Gulf of Mexico, it is the principal source of drinking water for about five million people. It is also an important regional ecosystem worthy of preservation and protection in its own right. Furthermore, it is a valued recreational resource, particularly by the large and growing population of Atlanta.

Although the Chattahoochee has suffered from industrial pollution dating back to Atlanta’s early development as a railroad center in the mid nineteenth century, modern pollution concerns have centered largely on the dumping of sewage and sewage-related municipal wastewater. The growing metropolis of Atlanta has produced most of this pollutant, but smaller cities like Columbus have added to the problem. In addition, storm water runoff from Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs has been identified as a serious pollutant.

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The most important single event in combating river pollution in recent decades was a consent decree signed in 1998 that committed the city of Atlanta to ending its repeated violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The city committed to a long-term project to upgrade sewage treatment plants and other water-management facilities with a goal of completing the clean up by 2014. After spending more than $4 billion over almost 20 years, the clean-up is judged to be nearly complete in 2017 (Frontier Group).

In total, about 100 public and private wastewater plants discharge about 250 million gallons of treated waste water per day in to the Chattahoochee River system. Sewage and wastewater released from these sources is most dangerous to humans because it typically contains fecal-coliform bacteria. This is a form of bacteria that inhabits the intestinal tract of people and animals and can cause health problems. One variation, E. Coli, is especially virulent, and has been a special concern in the Chattahoochee. Anxiety about E. Coli contamination is so prevalent that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains monitoring stations on the river and provides daily updates regarding bacterial levels on its website (USGS-Bacteria). Common health effects from contamination may include periods of vomiting and acute diarrhea. Some forms of the bacteria can cause hemorrhagic colitis, which may lead to kidney failure and similar health issues (USGS-South Atlantic).

Other sources of the bacteria are dogs, cats, cows, and other farm animals. Wildlife, such as geese, ducks, deer, and beavers, also contribute. These animals deposit fecal matter on the lands surrounding the river and its tributaries, and then are washed into the watercourses by rainfall. Geese and ducks typically defecate directly into the water (USGS-South Atlantic Water).

Sewage treatment plants aim to eliminate fecal-coliform bacteria as a public health threat, but they are not always successful. After heavy rains, for example, sewage spills often take place as the wastewater system is overwhelmed by the sudden addition of large amounts of water. While the worst pollution from sewage treatment plants has been curbed by the massive investment in new facilities, the problem has not been solved entirely. As noted, heavy rains will cause the wastewater treatment system to overflow into the river. Leaks and accidental discharges from the system are also regular occurrences (WSB-TV).

The gradual cleanup aimed at sewage-based contamination such as fecal-coliform bacteria has led to new attention to related problems. In the metropolitan Atlanta area, runoff from impermeable surfaces like roads and parking lots washes pollutants such as motor oil, salts and tire dust into the river. Thermal pollution, which occurs when roads and other paved surfaces heat up rainwater that is emptying into the river and its tributaries, can kill fish or other organisms that are sensitive to changes in the water temperature (National Park System)

Industrial pollution remains a problem for the river system, but the focus of the difficulty has shifted away from single-point discharges from industrial facilities to the more difficult problem of storm water runoff. The environmental watchdog group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper cites food processing facilities, auto salvage yards, metals manufacturing companies, and agricultural chemical producers as significant contributors to the problem. These companies store products and wastes outdoors, a practice which causes pollutants to be washed into streams and waterways by the rain.

A good example of a business contributing to contamination of the river is the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant on the banks of Flat Creek, in the town of Gainesville, GA, just north of Atlanta. Monitoring of Flat Creek in 2012 found bacteria levels more than 1,000 times higher than the level recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The disclosure resulted in a fine against the company and a $500,000 effort by Pilgrim’s Pride to improve its storm water runoff management efforts (Chattahoochee Riverkeeper). As part of a broader program, Chattahootchee Riverkeeper had identified 100 sites in the Atlanta region where proper compliance with pollution regulations are in question. The group has set a goal to achieve compliance at all 100 sites by the end of 2017.

Pollution by scofflaw industrial companies has been reduced significantly but has not disappeared entirely. In 2015, the company American Sealcoat Manufacturing LLC was fined $10 million for illegally dumping a black oily substance into a tributary of the Chattahoochee. The violation is a reminder that close monitoring of industrial facilities in necessary to maintain improved water quality (Chapman). Some industrial companies will try to save money by dumping toxic waste illegally, and both the government and environmental groups should test water for contaminants and frequently remind companies of the importance of complying with waste disposal regulations.

Improvement of sewage treatment facilities remains one of the most important problems to be addressed in improving water quality of the Chattahootchee. The long process of constructing new facilities, begun in 1998, has identified problems with the daily operation and maintenance of these facilities, and a higher level of competent operation is required to sustain better water quality. Supervision of facilities for leaks and malfunctioning equipment, as well as better training of workers to reduce operator error, are required to reduce the levels of pollutants and maintain a safer water system.

Impact of Urban Sprawl
Another problem is the continued uncontrolled economic growth of the Atlanta suburbs. Woodlands are being developed into housing developments, shopping centers and roadways, creating problems of erosion and runoff into local streams. Development policies are needed to impose stricter controls and accountability in this area. It is particularly important that the streams and small waterways that act as tributaries to the Chattahootchee be afforded stronger protection. Improved policies of this kind are also needed in other geographic areas of the Chattahoochee basin, such as in Columbus, to prevent a repetition of the problems that are plaguing the Atlanta suburbs.

Increased compliance efforts to control sewage output, industrial pollution and related storm water runoff are necessary in order to try to bring the level of pollution down in the Chattahoochee. The goal of local government, businesses, and environmental groups should be to maintain it as a clean waterway that can support a healthy source of water for area residents, a thriving ecosystem for wildlife, and a safe recreational resource. A public-private partnership between the state of Georgia and an established environmental group like Chattahootchee Riverkeeper would be an ideal way to generate fresh momentum for this effort.

An overarching necessity is a better understanding of the environmental costs and benefits of economic development among our elected officials and thought leaders. Economic development is currently regarded as an un-alloyed social good by most of these leaders, but the fact is that there are real social and environmental costs that not usually considered until after it is too late. It is always more difficult and expensive to address these costs after the problems have been created. This is especially true of the Chattahoochee River system because of its essential role as a fresh water drinking source.

  • Chapman, Dan. “Chattahoochee River Pollution to be Cleaned Up.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Oct. 20, 2015.
  • Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Protecting Streams and Communities from Industrial Pollution.” https://chattahoochee.org/our-work/water-monitoring/protecting-streams-communities-industrial-pollution/ Accessed 12 Oct. 2017
  • Inglis, Jeff. “Waterways Restored: Case Study 1: Georgia’s Chattahoochee River.” Frontier Group. https://frontiergroup.org/blogs/blog/fg/waterways-restored-case-study-1-georgias-chattahoochee-river Accessed 12 Oct. 2017
  • National Park System. Chattahoochee River – Environmental Factors.
  • United States Geological Survey. Chattahoochee River Bacteria Alert Program.
    https://ga2.er.usgs.gov/bacteria/, Accessed 16 Sept. 2017

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