A Macon resident who lives next to the Ocmulgee River filed an amended lawsuit against the Macon Water Authority on Friday, claiming that the utility lied to regulators about the size and duration of a Labor Day sewage spill and failed to clean it up.
The allegations were added to an April suit filed in Bibb County Superior Court by Roland Neel, who owns about 10 acres at 1083 S. Pine Knoll Drive. The initial lawsuit alleged that the authority damaged Neels property when installing a new sewer trunk line in an easement across Neels property.
The new allegations relate to a sewage spill the authority reported as 4,860 gallons on the easement, which is just upstream of the popular Amerson River Park. Any spill less than 10,000 gallons is considered minor by state regulators.
The lawsuit contends the authority deliberately underreported the amount of the spill by claiming it ended two hours earlier than it did and that it began at the time Neel reported it. (The latter is standard industry practice, authority officials have said.)
The lawsuit also claims the authority lied to the state Environmental Protection Division when it reported that the spill had been cleaned up the same day. In fact, the complaint says the area remains saturated with sewage, residue, excrement and other debris from the spill. The lawsuit claims the alleged failure to clean up the spill was an act of retaliation for Neels original lawsuit.
Tony Rojas, executive director of the water authority, said he could not comment on the specific claims in the lawsuit except to say, We dont believe allegations in the lawsuit or the amendment are accurate.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper, a river watchdog organization, sent a letter to the authority last month voicing its concerns about the Labor Day spill. Those concerns were based on reports from Neel and photos taken by Riverkeeper members. Deborah Sheppard, the groups executive director, said the photos showed a small amount of residue and minor debris remained the day after the spill.
Rojas said last month that authority employees did not put down lime in the area of the spill as usual because of concerns that the lime would be washed into the river, where it could harm fish.
Neels lawsuit accuses the authority of utter contempt of its legal duties, being intentionally deceptive and displaying bad faith and willful misconduct. The complaint claims the authoritys actions present a public and private nuisance and constitute a reverse condemnation of Neels property.
Neel seeks punitive damages in an amount that would be sufficient to deter, penalize, or punish the defendant in light of the circumstances of this case.
The water authority has reduced the number and volume of its sewage spills in recent years, following years of spilling millions of gallons, sometimes millions in a single spill. Yet, Rojas said this is the first lawsuit about a sewage spill filed against the authority for at least the last decade -- and maybe ever.
Hopefully well get to court soon is all I can say, so we can get the details out there, he said. We take our responsibility seriously. We take pride in our response time and our efforts.
Marzieh Shahbazaz, the EPD municipal compliance and enforcement manager, said no complaints have been made to the agency about the accuracy of the spill report.
We rely on (the water authority), she said. We do not have the resources to go and confirm what they report.
The authority has had problems with accurately calculating the size of its sewage spills in the past. But when the authority discovered it had been significantly underestimating spills several years ago, it reported the problem to the EPD, changed its methods and has since educated other utilities about how to estimate spills properly.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.