News - The (bloated) dog days of summer

Bungling bureaucracy has a scent all its own

It's late August, and so the human sewage still leaking through the new "partial" separation chlorine tanks into Intrenchment Creek in Boulevard Heights where I live has evaporated down to a late-summer concentrated-human-waste musk, the scent of which makes stray dogs crazy with joy.This is the smell of elected leadership gone wrong. As I sit on my porch inhaling the odor of human turds, I hope that ingesting chlorine-treated feces doesn't kill dogs, not only because I love dogs more than anything else in the world, but also because I fear that the smell of their bloated carcasses will do nothing to improve this troubling situation.

I also hope the bloated dog carcasses don't somehow clog the machinery of the new chlorine separation tanks that lie on either end of this small neighborhood. We residents have been warned that something very, very bad will happen if the tanks malfunction and send cubic tons of Clorox spilling into the open concrete ditches. These ditches used to be creeks swelling with fish and plants until some former mayor, in his wisdom, lined them with concrete and diverted sewage and surface road drainage into them, turning this neighborhood where working people rest their heads into an open-air toilet that's probably killing us slowly already.

But if something goes wrong and the chlorine spills out, the dying's apparently going to happen at a much faster clip. Think Bhopal — eyeballs bleeding, running like a dog to escape a disaster caused by careless bureaucrats.

In Boulevard Heights, we've been told that it isn't very likely the chlorine will spill, but the people who told us this are the ones who lacked the nerve to tell us what would happen if it did spill. Instead, they sent us a letter from the EPA with a phone number and a brief message stating that if we wanted to know what would happen if the chlorine spilled, we should call the number listed.

I'm a sucker for public participation, so I called the number for days. First it was busy. Then it rang and nobody picked up. Maybe that was the message. Maybe it's a metaphor for what will happen if the chlorine spills: a busy signal, then nothing. Maybe somebody's employing existentialists at the EPA.

Meanwhile, a sinkhole has been forming on Boulevard from a water leak that's been running unimpeded for three years. Bill Campbell's United Water has, of course, done nothing about the sinkhole, which is 200 feet from a three-story concrete tank filled with enough chlorine to drown nine school busses filled with children — except they'd be drowning in chlorine, not water, which at least has the virtue of being faster.

After 13 years of living in Atlanta, I've begun to form a political philosophy that goes something like this: Corruption is at its most efficient when it's bloated and out of control. The larger it gets; the more perverse and visible it gets, the less people are actually able to do anything to stop it. It was bad when turds flowed freely from the strained sewer lines into Intrenchment Creek, so bad that I would have been hard-pressed to imagine a worse situation. But soaking the feces in a giant tank of poison teetering over a sinkhole before releasing them into the creek is, in fact, far worse.

Having to make a choice between poison-soaked turds flowing through your neighborhood or non-poison-soaked turds flowing through your neighborhood can really induce civic paralysis. It also brings to mind the mayoral race. The bizarre and costly chlorine tanks in Boulevard Heights are a testament to decades of mayoral mismanagement, yet neither candidate (and none running for head of City Council) has issued word one on what we're going to do to fix the problem. Instead, what we hear is news of advocacy groups joining one or the other campaigns.

But advocacy groups cancel each other out like cats in a bag. What I want to hear is this: What are the candidates going to do about the turds in my neighborhood? For five years now, out of a sense of social responsibility that I now see as a character flaw, I've been participating in something called the Combined Sewer Overflow Project Citizen Advisory Group. What this means is that I receive incomprehensible reports on the progress of the giant poison tanks, with headings like: "Sampling Protocol Methodology Review." These reports are designed to placate me, so that in my last moments on Earth, as the chlorine tank cracks in half over the sinkhole and corrosive gasses replace the oxygen in my lungs, I can say to myself, "Well, at least I was an involved citizen."

I have just one wish before I die horribly: to compile enough information about wastewater separation to make an informed choice in the mayoral election.

Tina Trent is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.??

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