Proposed new regulations affecting how some 3,000 industrial facilities in the state deal with stormwater have strong implications for Georgia's poultry industry.
The new rules, which are out for public comment until Friday, call on poultry facilities near impaired streams to capture rain in heavy storms. For those whose stormwater continuously exceeds state pollution levels, the state likely will start paying attention.
The head of the Georgia Poultry Federation says it could mean costly changes for Georgia poultry companies.
But an environmental group concerned with the health of the river basin that supplies water to much of metro Atlanta says the rules could be stronger.
In Gainesville, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is paying particular attention to Flat Creek. The tributary of Lake Lanier flows through some of the city's heaviest industrial areas. The creek runs through a large section of the county, but a six-mile stretch through Gainesville is so contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria that the state's Environmental Protection Division lists it as an impaired stream.
The creek's state-designated use is for fishing, but the EPD says its health won't support it.
Under normal circumstances, the EPD doesn't monitor streams on its own. It requires industries covered under its general stormwater permit to test rainwater flowing from their sites into streams eight times a year to monitor pollution levels.
A specific cause for concern for poultry companies is the standard for fecal coliform. About one quarter of Georgia's poultry plants will be affected by the new requirements for sites near streams deemed impaired because of high levels of the bacteria, according to Mike Giles, head of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
But Giles argues that poultry companies aren't the only ones responsible for high levels of the bacteria.
"Fecal coliform is a challenging pollutant to measure and also to control through a permit process," he said. "It is everywhere in the environment."
Giles points to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Water and Health showing levels of fecal coliform high in streams near high- and medium-density residential areas.
The state's water quality rules, though setting a standard for fecal coliform, say the standard is "unrealistic" and questions whether measuring fecal coliform is the best indicator of whether a stream's water may make people sick.
But fecal coliform measurements are a good indicator of whether E. coli is present in water. E. coli, too, is a good indicator of other harmful pathogens.
Members of the Riverkeeper say that long-term measurements of fecal coliform, especially E. coli, will help determine if health hazards exist in the stream and their cause.
Members of the Riverkeeper recently have begun testing the waters of Flat Creek in several areas, including one next to a Pilgrim's Pride poultry processing plant on Industrial Boulevard in Gainesville.
The weekly tests have shown varied results, depending on rainfall.
But at one point in mid-February, the group says a sampling of stream water near the facility showed bacteria levels more than 55 times the state's water quality standard.
A sample at the same location Thursday showed fecal coliform levels at 430 MPN/100 ml, closer to, but still higher than, the standard of 235.
Pilgrim's Pride spokeswoman Margaret McDonald said she would not comment on tests not conducted by the government.
Jason Ulseth, technical programs director for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, acknowledges that Pilgrim's Pride "certainly isn't the only source" of the bacteria in Flat Creek's watershed. But the group's recent testing shows that the industrialized areas are "hot spots" for the bacteria, he said.
The Riverkeeper first took serious interest in the pollution in Flat Creek in 2009, when some 140 fish were found dead in the stream near the Pilgrim's Pride plant.
An EPD investigation of the fish kill never determined a cause, but investigators did report finding a "grey sludge and putrescent floating debris/foam in the creek" below the pipe that releases stormwater coming from the facility.
The Riverkeeper has called on the EPD to issue an individual permit for Pilgrim's Pride, rather than including it under the self-regulated umbrella permit that includes some 3,000 Georgia facilities.
The Riverkeeper cites annual reports filed to the EPD by Pilgrim's Pride that show the pollution in stormwater runoff from the facility was "consistently above the benchmarks," Ulseth said.
McDonald said the Industrial Boulevard facility has changed how it deals with stormwater and expressed confidence the facility will meet its pollution benchmarks in the future.
"We are no longer discharging stormwater in that affected area," she said. "We are collecting it, capturing it and sending it to the city."
EPD records show Pilgrim's Pride made improvements in 2011.
The Riverkeeper counters that the company didn't perform enough tests on the water to meet permit requirements.
McDonald, based in Colorado, said she could not comment on the report the facility filed with the EPD in 2011.
The current stormwater permit contains few consequences for facilities that violate stormwater pollution standards year after year. The permit, Ulseth says, allows them to pollute waterways as long as they monitor the discharge and make an effort to improve pollution levels.
"They at no point had to actually make any improvements, just try," Ulseth wrote in an email.
Ulseth and Giles were part of a stakeholder process to change the requirements.
Ulseth said the Riverkeeper convinced the EPD to require industries with a history of pollution to take serious action to clean up water discharged into streams. The changes were included in a proposed permit issued last summer.
But Giles, citing the cost burdens for poultry companies, asked the EPD to ease up on those requirements.
"Our concern was making sure the standards required ... were reasonable," Giles said.
Ulseth said the result was a "watered down" set of consequences for consistent polluters.
Instead of giving a facility 18 months to make "necessary improvements" to meet water quality standards, the changes give a business three years to comply.
Still, if the EPD finds a facility isn't meeting its permit requirements, the new proposal includes what EPD Stormwater Unit Manager Frances Carpenter calls end results.
Specifically, those who discharge stormwater into streams are currently under the guidance of water quality "benchmarks," or goals. If the water quality near their discharge pipes doesn't meet those goals, the EPD doesn't issue a citation.
However, under the new proposal, facilities that don't meet water quality goals in three years will be under stricter scrutiny. Repeat offenders will have to meet certain levels or face penalties.
"In the (current) permit there wasn't a final step that said ‘you'll have to do more to meet that benchmark', but in the 2012 permit there are progressive steps outlined," Carpenter said.
That is considered a victory for the Riverkeeper group.
"The new requirements were watered down but we were able to keep enough of it in that there are improvements over the previous permit," Ulseth said.
Groups have until Friday to request changes to the proposal. Carpenter said as of last week few comments were submitted. If there are no changes, it could be issued in the next two months.
It wasn't what the Riverkeeper originally hoped for, and could result in serious capital investments for poultry companies. Yet Carpenter said the new permit has something for everyone.
"The good thing for industry is there is a lot of flexibility in attempting to satisfy the requirements," said Carpenter. "The good thing from the standpoint of water quality is there are finite steps toward protecting water quality."