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Sewage systems in Georgia fined for wastewater spills, records show

Riverkeeper: Despite spills, water is cleaner than 1990.

ATLANTA — Georgia penalized water systems this week in Gainesville and in Coweta County for dumping raw sewage into creeks and waterways. The state says two million gallons of raw sewage ended up in Lake Lanier in a spill that happened in 2020.  

State records show that two million gallons of raw sewage spilled from a treatment plant in Flowery Branch straight into Lake Lanier.  It happened in October 2020, when heavy rainfall overloaded the plant and wastewater spilled into the creek that feeds the lake.  

Though the incident was unusual, state records show that about twice a month so far this year, the state has issued consent orders with penalties for local water and sewage operators for wastewater spills into Georgia water systems.

“There are failures and it’s not out of the ordinary to have them. We just don’t want them to be happening on a routine basis," said Juliet Cohen, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

She says people who use Lake Lanier or the Chattahoochee River for recreation are still mostly safe to use the water – especially if they’re not close to a discharge point for a sewage system following a spill.  Such spills, she says, are supposed to be disclosed to the public immediately.

“Depending on how large the water body is there, there’s a certain amount of dilution that occurs," she said. "Of course, it’s also very dependent on the size of the spill.”

Cohen says the state’s sewage systems have generally improved their diligence in keeping the bad stuff out of the state’s lakes and rivers – though there are too many exceptions.  

"You don’t want to have consistent spills that will be routinely impacting public health or water quality. That is really the big concern," she said.

Cohen says her group has found that bacterial levels in the Chattahoochee below Atlanta have dropped by 80 percent since the 1990s.

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