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Sally Bethea

Executive Director of Upper Chattahoochee River Keeper (talking with reporter Joshua Azriel)

Azriel - In general what does your organization do?

Bethea - Well, River Keeper is five years old. We are an environmental advocacy organization whose mission is to protect the Chattahoochee its tributaries and watershed.

Azriel - Let's talk a little about some perceptions from the state of Florida on pollution up here. The perception down there is there is industrial dumping going on and that the concern is eventually the pollution will effect the fishing down in Apalachicola You live here in Atlanta and are more familiar with the situation than I am. Where is this so called pollution coming from?

Bethea - Well the Chattahoochee is a very polluted river. We've been named one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country. The Chattahoochee is a working river not just a show river, it's got beautiful places but it is also extremely polluted particularly below the city of Atlanta. For decades Atlanta has dumped raw sewage into the river, has not met its permits and we are very happy that at long last through River Keepers suit against the city of Atlanta in federal court we've got a consent decree which is going to put the city of Atlanta on a path to fixing these problems. Of course when sewage, under treated sewage or raw sewage is dumped in a river like the Chattahoochee you have serious bacteria problems causing potential threats to drinking water supplies in recreation down stream. Our research indicates by and large that pollution extends maybe 100 or so miles at the most down stream. The Chattahoochee has many dams, 14 different dams on the main stem and most of theses dams actually catch a lot of the pollution whether its bacteria, toxic chemicals or sediment from development. Probably, the biggest threat to the Chattahoochee is the eroded soil and sedimentation that comes from the uncontrolled growth. This is a city that has no boundaries that is one of the fastest growing cities in the country if not the world and red Georgia clay is coming down the tributaries to the Chattahoochee going down stream and with that red clay you get all kinds of pollutants, pesticides, bacteria, oils, and greases into this river. So this city has not been a good steward for the communities downstream. I think that our research indicates that by and large it is a quantity of flow that is problematic for the Chattahoochee River and the Apalachicola River. And very valid concerns from the folks downstream as to how the growing metropolitan Atlanta is going to consume this river and potentially reduce that flow.

Azriel - Let's talk a little about, you said some of the red clay. I am a little unclear. The red clay has chemicals, how is it getting into the river?

Bethea - When it rains, and the rain falls on vegetated area or a forest you have that natural leaf litter and other vegetation absorbing the rain water and filtering into the ground and ultimately into streams. When a developer comes in to build a subdivision, a large commercial development typically they come in and scrape off that carpet, that natural vegetative carpet and so when it rains and you have that hard rainfall on that Georgia red clay, you end up with the mud and dirt flowing down to the lowest level into small streams, larger ones, and then into the river. And most people don't think of sediment and eroded soil as a pollutant but it very much is. It destroys the life in our rivers. It causes the pesticides and chemicals and oils and greases that catches onto the particles as it flows over the land and all that ends up in our rivers. And it warms the temperature and there just a lot of problems from eroded soil and sediment.

Azriel - Now you talked about raw sewage south of Atlanta. Where is that coming from? Or where did it come from?

Bethea- Well the sewage issue is one that is really rampant throughout metropolitan Atlanta, it's not just the city of Atlanta that has undercapacity. Let me change that, let's start over...This problem with sewage in the Chattahoochee River is the fact that throughout metropolitan Atlanta we have very dense development, we have local governments that have sewage systems that are overloaded and when it rains in particular you end up getting a brew of storm water and some sewage coming out into the creeks into the river. The problem is primarily associated with the city of Atlanta's old and decrepit and under maintained sewage system, 100 year old pipes, the money has just not been spent to upgrade these systems and therefore you end up with high bacteria levels in urban streams and in the Chattahoochee River.

Azriel - In 1995 River Keepers took the city of Atlanta to court. Tell me a little about that.

Bethea - In 1995 we organized a coalition of local governments, individuals, and businesses downstream in addition to our environmental organization and we took the issue of Atlanta's sewage problems to federal court. We felt that the record showed neither the city nor the state could deal with this problem effectively and that unfortunately a citizens group would need to take it to a federal judge. We won our case, we settled in 1998 and at this time there is a major consent decree which outlines how the city of Atlanta must upgrade its sewage system to meet water quality standards by 2007.

Azriel - By the city of Atlanta are we talking about all those private and public industries within the city limits, what are we talking about when you say the city of Atlanta?

Bethea - Well of course the city of Atlanta like most local governments operates a publicly owned treatment facility that deals with the sanitary sewage from businesses and home and individuals. Now that sewage system also takes some pre-treated wastes from some industries in the city so it does have some industrial component, but it is primarily sanitary sewage that is being treated by the city for its customers, those who live and reside in the city.

Azriel - You said some of the people you were in the lawsuit with were from downtown stream. You mean south of Atlanta?

Bethea - Yes.

Azriel - Is there anything in general about this issue that you'd want the listener to know about down in Florida?

Bethea - Well I think over River Keepers five years we've indicated that we are an organization focused on the entire river basin, the Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint Basin. Our mission is to protect the ecology of that system to help deliver clean safe drinking water to all communities along this river. And we are prepared with our technical experts and our attorneys and our 2000 plus members to deliver that result no matter what it takes.

Azriel - Do you work with organizations in Alabama and Florida, environmental organizations?

Bethea - We do work with environmental and recreation groups in Alabama and in Florida and in fact we are beginning a more intense effort to develop a conservation coalition so that our unified voice will be heard more clearly by all the decision makers.

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