Press Release | June 2, 2008

State to reveiw wastewater treatment facility on McIntosh County marsh hammock

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s decision to allow a wastewater treatment facility as part of a residential development on a small marsh hammock in McIntosh County has come under the scrutiny of the state. The Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings has announced that on Friday, June 6, it will review the decision by EPD to permit an on-site sewage treatment facility on Union Island, a marsh hammock slated to be developed with vacation homes.

At issue is EPD’s decision to allow a development company to construct and operate a wastewater treatment facility that will not properly treat the waste before it enters the groundwater, the marsh, and the estuarine system, thereby threatening the marsh and the surrounding waters on the small marsh hammock. The case also raises important questions about who bears the permitting authority for such systems. The Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings has 90 days to decide on the case.

“Allowing this type of sewage management system on Union Island not only threatens the health of this beautiful marsh hammock so valued by the people of McIntosh County, but sets a dangerous precedent that will drive destruction of marsh hammocks previously considered off limits to development. If we fail to develop clear legal guidelines for development on sensitive marsh hammocks, issues like water quality will fall through the cracks while no one is watching,” said Catherine Wannamaker, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Altamaha Riverkeeper in the appeal. 

Much of Georgia’s coast, including McIntosh County remains relatively undeveloped. However, growth is fast approaching many of these regions, making decisions about how best to manage that growth increasingly significant. In regard to wastewater treatment, allowing EPD to exercise permitting and standard-setting authority that has traditionally rested with different state agencies could result in perilous and precedent-setting decisions that guide future development for generations.

“Georgia’s priceless salt marsh estuary system deserves better regulation,” said Deborah Sheppard, Executive Director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper organization.  “New developments are being planned and constructed in sensitive tidal and freshwater wetland areas without proper evaluation of how their wastewater will be managed.  Developers seek these areas to increase profits, but without proven wastewater management both water quality and development potential will suffer.”

Southeast Georgia Land and Development Company plans to develop 18 vacation homes on Union Island. “Union Island Plantation,” as the development will be called, will be served by an on-site sewage management system that will process nearly 8,000 gallons of wastewater per day. The project was permitted by EPD, a division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, under EPD standards despite the fact that Georgia law assigns the responsibility of permitting such systems to the County Health Departments and assigns the authority for setting the standards governing such systems to the Department of Human Resources.

The permit approved by EPD allows for a treatment system that is too small to handle the anticipated wastewater. Furthermore, the sandy, porous soil and shallow water table of Union Island will result in increased pollution of the marshes.  In addition, flooding, which is common on Union Island, would result in the direct discharge of fecal coliform, E. coli, and other pathogens and organic material into the marsh and surrounding estuarine system.

EPD claims to have permitting authority over the system through a memorandum of agreement with the DHR.  Under the memorandum, EPD permits large, community-based wastewater systems using less stringent standards, while the County Health Departments permits residential systems using DHR’s tougher standards. SELC contends that the memo was not only misapplied in this case but is invalid under Georgia law.