The Altamaha Riverkeeper environmental advocacy organization sent a letter to the Macon Water Authority expressing concerns about how it handles sewage spills, after a minor spill raised concerns this month.
The group said the utility needs to make it easier for residents to report spills after business hours, and it criticized the authoritys cleanup and spill size calculations.
In response, the authority has changed its website and may explore changing some of its policies, Executive Director Tony Rojas said.
The authority estimated the spill, during Labor Day weekend on an easement near 1083 S. Pine Knoll Drive, was about 4,860 gallons. It was caused by grease blocking the sewer line, the authority reported.
We are concerned that this spill was more extensive than reported, stated a Sept. 10 letter from Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. It flowed to the Ocmulgee River, less than a quarter mile from Amerson Water Works Park, where large numbers of people were enjoying the river in boats, tubes, by wading and swimming.
The authority measures spills based on the flow of sewage at the time the spill is reported, because it is impossible to know exactly how much sewage had been escaping earlier, Rojas said.
After speaking with Rojas, whom she called receptive, Sheppard said she understands this is standard industry practice. But she suggested that the authority should somehow recognize in the narrative portion of its spill reports to the state when debris and other clues indicate the spill had likely been happening for some time.
Rojas said, We may look at making that change ourselves, but wed like to start a dialogue as an industry to establish a norm because utilities are compared to each other. We want to do everything we can to document these things.
He pointed out that the authority already starts its spill estimates at the time the spill is reported rather than the time an employee sees it, as some utilities do.
Several years ago, the authority realized it had been estimating spills using a method that contradicted its own policies, causing much lower spill estimates. It reported the problem to the state Environmental Protection Division, corrected it and has since educated other utilities about the method.
But the Labor Day spill also raised the issue of spill reporting. The person who first reported the spill tried to do so using the authoritys website, which is not monitored after business hours.
Rojas acknowledged that the form on the website was somewhat unclear and said the authority has since changed its website to direct residents to report spills by calling a staffed phone number: 464-5656.
Sheppard said photos taken in the days after the spill showed it hadnt been fully cleaned up. Rojas said authority employees did not put down lime in the area of the spill as usual, because the sewage had spilled into a ditch flowing with water from heavy rains and leading to the river. Lime can raise the acidity of water in a river or stream, potentially harming fish.
Rojas noted that in the past few years the authority spent $5.5 million on improvements to sewer lines near where this spill occurred, in an effort to eliminate huge spills caused by heavy rains entering sewer pipes.
But this is where we need the publics help, he said. We need the public to be conscious of the fact that when you pour grease down the drain in your home, it can cause a blockage.
Sheppard acknowledged the authoritys years of work on reducing grease-related spills.
Its hard to believe people still put grease down the drain, she said.
To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.