Guest Column
Robert Schreiber

Editor’s Note: Robert Schreiber is a long-time volunteer citizen-participant interested in assuring that projects associated with the city of Atlanta’s water, sewer and storm water management programs provide protection of public health and protection of the environment. His interest also includes assuring that all projects and actions comply with pertinent laws, regulations and rules.

From May 2001-December 2004, Schreiber was involved in leadership positions of the public participation process associated with the court-ordered consent decrees through Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit process and the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board process. He regular monitors the program.

Schreiber is former chairman of NPU-N and former president of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board.

When federal Judge Thomas Thrash signed two Consent Decrees in 1998 and 1999, Atlanta was required to stop violating the Clean Water Act. The city had been allowing sewage to pollute streams, spill from neglected sewer pipes, and back-up into residences and businesses. Atlanta’s plans to fix some of the problems included building large sewage tunnel systems.

In 2001, citizens became alarmed that the projects would pollute Atlanta’s aquifers with sewage, have adverse public-health consequences, and violate the Safe Drinking Water Act. They presented their concerns to the city, Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Before authorizing construction of the tunnels, EPA’s regional office in Atlanta prepared a memorandum. It explained that personnel in the Washington, D.C., Office of Water, numerous other EPA personnel, and independent contractors all agreed that tunnels have the potential to leak. The memo concluded that releases from Atlanta’s tunnels could not be quantified but were highly likely and that potential contamination of the water table should be considered.

Part of the Safe Drinking Water Act is designed to protect aquifers and human health. For Atlanta’s tunnel systems, the method for ensuring protection involves getting permits for the shafts, which fill the tunnels with sewage, and demonstrating that human health will not be jeopardized. This is supposed to occur prior to construction. Now, Atlanta is not only sending sewage into its aquifers but it never even applied for the shaft permits.

EPA’s memo was never released to citizens nor to Judge Thrash, and documents filed in 2003 show how the City, the Department of Justice, and the Georgia Attorneys General office misled the court. They told Judge Thrash that tunnels do not need permits but failed to disclose that the shafts do need permits. They also failed to disclose a 1997 decision from the higher 11th Circuit Court of Appeals which establishes that aquifers must be protected and that permits for the shafts must be obtained before any fluid, such as sewage, is placed underground.

Beginning in October 2006, citizens assembled more documents showing that the Court was misled. After Judge Thrash offered to receive and review new information describing what had happened, a legal opinion prepared by Mr. Hal Wright was sent to the Court. It was based on the 1997 Appellate decision and it confirms that Atlanta needs, but does not have, the required permits. The Department of Justice responded with misleading information but did not address Mr. Wright’s legal opinion. The response also pointed to additional undiscovered information.

On July 14 of this year, 22 concerned citizens wrote to Judge Thrash requesting that he review Mr. Wright’s legal opinion and Atlanta’s non-compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Department of Justice’s response introduced yet more misleading information, but again did not address Mr. Wright’s legal opinion. To view a list of the citizens, an excerpt from the 1997 decision, and a short outline of Mr. Wright’s legal opinion, go to You also can sign the petition there.

The City denies there are any problems but it relies on misleading information from the Department of Justice and others. In an e-mail from Aug. 27, 2009, Mayor (Shirley) Franklin, her Law Department, and private counsel chose to remain silent rather than address Mr. Wright’s legal opinion. Atlanta might be complying with the Clean Water Act but water/sewer ratepayers are financing projects which violate the Safe Drinking Water Act and pollute aquifers.

Ratepayers deserve responsive representation and a decision from Judge Thrash, not misleading excuses or silence. City Council should pass an ordinance that requires the mayor to (a) provide the city’s legal opinion to Judge Thrash and (b) request that Judge Thrash consider the city’s and Mr. Wright’s opinions and then issue a decision regarding Atlanta’s compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Contact Atlanta’s council members and insist that they take action. If not, Atlanta will continue building sewage tunnels, violating the Safe Drinking Water Act and polluting aquifers.