$1.9 billion worth of tunnel vision

After years of city screw-ups, sewer activists are wary of an expensive plan to finally fix Atlanta's sewers

The two front rooms in Bill Eisenhauer's Midtown house are testaments to 10 years of activism on Atlanta's sewer and water issues. Every inch of every tabletop is covered in stacks of reports on water or sewage treatment of some kind. The hallway is lined with boxes full of papers including economic feasibility studies, environmental impact studies and memos between city officials and their consultants.

It's his command center for a grassroots battle against Atlanta's $1.95 billion plan to finally fix its sewer overflows.

The plan, detailed for the first time on April 1, calls for boring three tunnels through a total of 20 miles of solid granite more than 100 feet beneath the city. The largest tunnel would be up to 40 feet wide and 11 miles long. It would stretch from the Clear Creek wastewater plant near Piedmont Park to a brand-new $50 million treatment plant on the Chattahoochee River, most likely a couple of miles northeast of Six Flags.

Included in the total cost is the city Department of Public Works' plan to spend $199 million to separate sewer and stormwater pipes that run under about five square miles of the city.

All told, it stands to be one of the largest and most expensive public works undertakings in city history. And, after years of pressing and criticizing the city, state and federal environmental regulators seem surprisingly optimistic about the plan.

But Eisenhauer isn't.

"There's absolutely no guarantee that it will function and do the job it is intended to do," he says.

Eisenhauer belongs to a tight circle of activists who blame city officials for allowing millions of gallons of sewage and chlorine to spill each year into the Chattahoochee and other metro waterways. Over the years they've grown to mistrust the city intensely — partly because of decades of bungled sewer projects, partly because of a whole slew of unrelated scandals involving the Campbell administration.

Now, they're slamming the city's latest plan as too expensive, too risky and useless. Two, maybe three years, before construction begins, they're raising familiar questions about favoritism, boondoggling and possible conflicts of interest.

Those questions were first raised in the early 1980s, when Atlanta was under fire from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to replace antiquated systems called combined sewers. Combined sewers handle both raw sewage and stormwater; some overflow after rainfall, sending tons of human waste and chlorine into creeks and the Chattahoochee River. Eisenhauer and a handful of other activists argued from the start that the city should separate sewage from stormwater.

The city decided to stick with combined sewers. But in the late 1980s downstream communities began to pressure state and federal agencies to force the city to deal with the problem. So far, Atlanta has paid more than $23 million in fines for the spills coming from its combined sewers, and has been dragged into the construction of plants that partially treat combined sewer overflows.

In 1997, two months after the city completed the last of four mini-treatment plants — at a cost of $170 million — a federal judge ruled that the first three plants were dumping heavy metals and bacteria into the city's creeks.

Around the same time, Eisenhauer and his merry band of activists got the city to move one of the proposed plants out of Piedmont Park. They used their clout to get City Council to abandon plans to build an eight-mile long tunnel that would store and carry wastewater headed to the R.M. Clayton treatment plant so it could be treated at the Utoy Creek plant.

But the city's penchant for tunnels has resurfaced. In 1998, to settle a lawsuit filed by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and downstream residents, Mayor Bill Campbell and the Council agreed to a federal consent decree that requires Atlanta to comply with the Clean Water Act. The consent decree requires the city to fix its combined sewer overflows by 2007.

The city is proposing tunnels that would do two things: carry wastewater to treatment plants, and, during heavy rains, store the sewage and stormwater to give treatment plants time to discharge the massive influx of rainwater. Atlanta Environmental Director David Peters says the new system will allow only four overflows a year, which is acceptable under the consent decree.

Eisenhauer, a mechanical engineer and former director of the industrial development division of Georgia Tech's Research Institute, says that as long as stormwater and sewage travel through the same pipes, rainwater will flood the pipes and cause combined sewer overflows. He expects the tunnels to overflow more often than Peters predicts, arguing that the "city has not done sufficient hydrological analysis to see if the project can obtain the four overflows a year goal."

"The only proven method that works is total sewer separations," Eisenhauer says. "We'd get better water quality without [the tunnels]."

Tunneling itself is as controversial as Atlanta's track record on sewage projects.

"The history on tunnels in this area and other areas shows that actual costs end up being four times what was originally thought," says anti-tunnel activist Harry Leon, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering.

The city of Milwaukee spent $2.8 billion on a shorter tunnel system than the one Atlanta has proposed. It was built in 1994 to keep untreated sewage from polluting nearby waterways.

Before the new system was completed, the Milwaukee sewage system averaged 40 to 60 sewage overflows a year, according to Jim Fratrick of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Since the new tunnels opened in 1994, the city averaged two to four spills a year, Fratrick says.

That's the bottom line, says Mark Kass, the manager of communications for Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

But a February 2000 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report indicated that the tunnels leak frequently, and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District officials admit that. The chief legal counsel for the district said in the Journal-Sentinel series that "we now have exfiltration from the tunnels, as it should have been expected." Exfiltration is the sewer industry's fancy word for a leak.

In October 1994, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources detected fecal bacteria and other contaminants in monitoring wells that sample groundwater along the course of the tunnels. Kass says Milwaukee had to line the tunnels with concrete at some points to prevent leakage, a tactic Atlanta City Councilwoman Clair Muller says Atlanta might employ.

The Milwaukee system has reduced the amount of untreated sewage flowing into waterways. But, to prevent sewer back-ups from flooding homes, some communities have resorted to reopening bypasses — basically overflow valves that dump the sewage into rivers, streams or ditches.

The company responsible for the Milwaukee tunnels, CH2MHill, is the same outfit Atlanta officials hired to come up with its wastewater treatment solution. Could the consultant chosen by the city be already predisposed to settle on tunnels, rather than explore cheaper or more effective alternatives?

"The city planners have these people telling them to build tunnels by people who build tunnels for any reason they can," Leon says. "This company's lifeblood is tunnels."

Not all environmentalists are so anti-tunnel.

"The [Upper Chattahoochee] Riverkeeper's bottom line is that we want the Chattahoochee and its tributaries cleaned up as soon as possible, and under the [tunnel] option, the city says it can do it by 2007," says Sally Bethea, the Riverkeeper's executive director. But Bethea's group has hired an independent engineering firm to review the city's plans just to be sure.

Muller, the elected official on point for the city on the sewer project, argues that just because CH2Mhill is a consultant doesn't mean it will receive the contract for the tunnels. The work will be bid out, and the contract will be voted on by the City Council.

Muller believes the tunnel plan is the fastest, least expensive and most environmentally friendly way for the city to clean up its act. Opponents, she says, are less concerned with the greater good than they are with winning the argument over which technology will be used.

If the sewage system debate has indeed deteriorated into a shouting match, then the next phase could determine which side wins. The consent decree required the city to submit to the state Environmental Protection Division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a plan by April 1 showing how it would comply with the Clean Water Act. The city met that deadline and outlined three different plans to fix its sewer system. The plan that includes tunnel construction is the one preferred by city.

EPA and EPD engineers are reviewing the proposals. If they decide the tunneling plan won't work, they will direct city officials to review their other options. Officials at the agencies, who have 60 days from the day the city submitted the plan to make a decision, already are praising the city's efforts.

"Something this large is not going to make everybody happy," says the EPA's Scott Gordon, "but it looks like Atlanta could meet those Clean Water Act objectives."

If the two agencies approve the plan, city officials will immediately begin wrestling with the enormous financial burden that comes with the project.

"It doesn't matter what we do, this is a very expensive project," Peters says. "The only thing we have in terms of funding is to raise rates. Now the average wastewater bill is $31. To have bills go to $65 a month in the next 10 years is not unreasonable if we are not assisted by the federal government."

Peters, with the help of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Congressman John Lewis, plans to apply this summer for a low interest loan from the EPA for between $200 million and $300 million.

That federal money is crucial. If the city doesn't get it, "then [EPA] will either have to allow us to reduce the scope of the project, extend the deadline, or make some other accommodations to make the project affordable," Peters says.

True to form, Eisenhauer says the city's cost estimates are grossly optimistic. In January, he published his own 17-page economic feasibility study of the city's plan. It concludes that the final cost of just the tunneling component would be closer to $2 billion, double the city's estimate.

Leon is even more skeptical. "By the time they get through building this damn thing, it's going to cost the city $10 billion," he says.

Staff Writer Kevin Griffis contributed to this article.??