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Atlanta wastewater treatment plant experiences upset, monitoring ongoing

Updated April 16, 2024: 

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK) remains concerned about potentially dangerous bacteria levels in the Chattahoochee River downstream of the City of Atlanta’s R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Center. Water samples collected by CRK at the plant’s outfall and downstream in March and April have detected spikes in E. coli bacteria levels, which can pose serious health risks for the young, elderly, and immunocompromised. Due to the elevated risk of E. coli exposure while the plant is not functioning properly, CRK advises that river recreators exercise caution for a 60-mile stretch of the river from the plant’s outfall in Atlanta to Franklin, GA.

CRK continues to regularly monitor bacteria and nutrient levels at R.M. Clayton’s outfall and downstream. We always advise people to avoid river recreation for 72 hours after it rains when the river is high and muddy. CRK publishes water quality data from throughout the Chattahoochee River watershed online aquí.

Water quality is generally very good in metro Atlanta and the Chattahoochee River. However, this was the second failure at a major wastewater treatment plant in metro Atlanta in less than a year. In the summer of 2023, a failure at the Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Fulton County sent millions of gallons of undertreated sewage into the river upstream of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area every day for weeks, resulting in a three-week closure of the river park to protect public health.

What is causing the elevated bacteria levels?

During routine river monitoring, CRK detected high bacteria levels in the Chattahoochee in metro Atlanta and tracked the source to the City of Atlanta’s R.M. Clayton plant. Daily testing between March 4 and March 15 showed dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria in the Chattahoochee River at the plant’s outfall, immediately downstream of the Marietta Boulevard/Atlanta Road bridge. During this period, tests indicated that E. coli levels were an average of 340 times higher than the amount recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for safe water recreation.

On March 5, CRK notified the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM) and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) about our results. We corresponded with the City of Atlanta DWM and they indicated that equipment failures at the plant were likely the cause. As a result, the city expedited equipment repair and leased temporary equipment to improve the quality of the discharge.

Georgia EPD also conducted an inspection of the plant. While the City of Atlanta attributed the issues to secondary clarifier failures, the inspection report revealed issues at all stages of treatment. EPD photos reveal disrepair at the site, including trash, tire tracks, caution tape, and broken equipment.

On March 16, the City of Atlanta DWM notified CRK that they were beginning to see improvements in the R.M. Clayton WRC discharge. Initial samples collected by CRK the week of March 18 indicated a reduction in bacteria levels, but results from CRK’s continuous monitoring have indicated inconsistent spikes in bacteria at the plant’s outfall. CRK recommends that river recreators exercise caution for 60 miles from the plant’s outfall to Franklin, GA while there is an elevated risk of high bacteria levels. You can view water quality data from more than 200 sites throughout the watershed on our website

What caused the R.M. Clayton plant to fail?

We do not know exactly what caused the R.M. Clayton WRC failure. The City of Atlanta DWM has cited heavy rain events in January and February, which caused the secondary clarifiers at the plant to stop functioning properly, but EPD’s inspection report indicates larger operational and maintenance issues at the plant.

This problem is unlike other issues we often see during heavy rains, where water seeps into cracks in the sewer pipes (that run from homes and businesses to wastewater treatment plants) and causes them to overflow into nearby streams. This event is different because the failure happened at the plant where the treatment should occur. 

Do undertreated wastewater discharges pose a risk to public health?

Yes. Water quality testing conducted daily by CRK from the R.M. Clayton WRC outfall at the Chattahoochee River between March 4 and March 15 showed E. coli bacteria levels an average of 340 times higher (ranging from 40 to 500 times higher) than the amount recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for safe water recreation. While bacteria levels dropped at the end of March, CRK monitoring has continued to detect dangerous spikes at the plant’s outfall. 

High bacteria levels pose serious risks to public health, especially for vulnerable populations such as young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. CRK urges river recreators to be careful when paddling or fishing on the river. To be on the safe side, avoid fully submerging underwater, wash your hands after contacting the water or use hand sanitizer, and exercise particular caution with young children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

How many miles downstream of the wastewater outfall are impacted?

The greatest impact is immediately downstream of the R.M. Clayton WRC outfall at the Chattahoochee River, at the Marietta Boulevard/Atlanta Road bridge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Buford Dam upstream, which helps to dilute E. coli contamination further downstream. 

While issues at the plant are ongoing, CRK recommends that river users exercise caution on the river downstream of the Marietta Boulevard/Atlanta Road for 60 miles to Franklin, Georgia. 

Water quality is not impacted in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area upstream of the plant. Water quality is generally very good in the Chattahoochee River. In general, avoid river recreation for 72 hours after it rains when the river is high and muddy. CRK publishes water quality data from throughout the Chattahoochee River watershed online aquí.

Is drinking water affected by the undertreated wastewater discharge?

Drinking water in Fulton County and the metro Atlanta region is not affected by the plant failure. All source water is treated to meet drinking water standards.

What is the impact of the discharge on wildlife?

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is monitoring the impact of the discharge on wildlife at the R.M. Clayton WRC outfall and downstream. There are no indications of a fish kill as a result of the discharge.

This page will be updated as more information becomes available.

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