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Bad sewage costs school fine of $400

Chlorine level too low at Wauka Mountain

POSTED: December 11, 2007 7:19 a.m.

CLERMONT — As if educating kids weren’t enough of a challenge, some Hall County schools have to worry about more mundane matters, such as treating their own sewage.

Wauka Mountain Elementary School, near Clermont, was recently cited by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for violating its wastewater permit.

The amount of the fine was small, just $400, but the penalty was mandatory.

"They are in the Chattahoochee River basin, which the EPD considers a no-tolerance zone (for water pollution)," said Vickie Yarbrough, an environmental specialist with the EPD’s Athens office.

Wauka Mountain has to have a state permit because it’s the only Hall school that uses a sand filter system. Wastewater collected in its septic tank is pumped through a layer of sand for purification, then sent through underground drainpipes that discharge near a small tributary of Lake Lanier.

The school is required to sample its effluent each month and report the results to the EPD. Yarbrough said on two occasions in January and February, the wastewater exceeded its permitted limit for fecal coliform bacteria.

"They probably didn’t have enough chlorine tablets in the chamber," she said.

Lloyd Smee, maintenance supervisor for Hall County Schools, said someone neglected to fill the tank’s chlorinator.

"The maintenance man is supposed to do it every three or four days, but I think he may have been out sick and it didn’t get done," he said.

Smee said after the EPD cited the school, some changes were made to prevent the problem from recurring.

"We’ve now assigned a backup person in case the designated person can’t do it," he said.

Though the incident was minor, it illustrates the burden of having a large number of schools that don’t have access to sewer service.

Two local high schools, East Hall and North Hall, have their own sewage-treatment plants, using a biological process known as activated sludge. North Hall High shares its system with the adjacent North Hall Middle School.

The treatment plants are usually trouble-free. But Smee said it makes him uneasy knowing that the school system bears full responsibility for treating the wastewater.

"One of my nightmares is that I get a call from North Hall saying that the plant has quit working and we have to close the school," he said.

In addition, about one-third of the Hall system’s 33 schools are on septic tanks, according to Hall County Environmental Health director Pat Braswell.

"Generally we don’t have many problems with schools," she said. "The septic system usually does OK because though it has high peak usage during the day, it gets a chance to ‘rest’ because it’s not in use during nights and weekends or during the summer."

Braswell said her department only issues permits to install septic tanks, not to operate them. Inspectors typically don’t go out to a school unless there has been a sewage overflow, or if the school has applied for an expansion of their system.

One drawback to septic, Braswell said, is that school authorities have to purchase a larger piece of property than would otherwise be necessary.

"You have to have a lot of land that can be set aside (for drainage fields) and not used for anything," she said.

Smee said the growth in the student population can also create headaches.

"If the school has to add classrooms, then you have to do a major expansion of the septic system, and it can get complicated," he said.

Smee said in an ideal world, every school in Hall would have sewer service. Occasionally, as sewer lines are extended into underserved areas of the county, a school is able to switch from septic to sewer.

That’s going to happen with South Hall’s Spout Springs Elementary, he said, perhaps as soon as next summer.

"But for some schools, sewer service just won’t be possible," he said. "Even some new schools won’t have sewer. (When choosing a school site), you have to go where you can find land at a reasonable price, and then you can worry about sewer service later."

For the foreseeable future, at least a few Hall schools will have to be vigilant about their wastewater. "Flush it and forget about it" is not an option.

And there’s always the possibility of an incident like the one at Wauka Mountain.

"We watch this stuff pretty carefully," Smee said, "but things happen."



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