ATLANTA (November 11, 2004) — On November 23, 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling to reject a permit request by Gwinnett County that would allow additional sewage discharge into Lake Lanier. Lake Lanier is the main water source for more than three million of Metro Atlanta’s residents and businesses, and also is the main drinking water source for Gwinnett County’s more than 675,000 residents. The state case was the first nationwide to interpret the federal Clean Water Act rule known as the “anti-degradation rule.”
Environmental attorney Stephen O’Day of Atlanta-based law firm Smith, Gambrell & Russell represented an association of businesses and residents on Lake Lanier, the Lake Lanier Association, and environmentalist Terence D. Hughey. Environmental groups Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club also challenged the permit. The permit was initially issued in November 2000 by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to allow Gwinnett County to discharge 40 million gallons of treated sewage into Lake Lanier per day.
In obtaining the permit, the county promised to use state-of-the-art technology capable of virtually eliminating some of the pollutants normally discharged by municipal sewage treatment plants. However, the EPD’s permit provided for an “engineering safety buffer” that would allow up to 23 times the amount of pollutants the plant was capable of discharging, and as a result, allowing unnecessary degradation of current water quality.
According to O’Day, “Lake Lanier is one of the crown jewels of the federal reservoir system, generating $5 billion in economic benefits for the area annually, as well as providing environmental and aesthetic benefits. This first-of-its-kind ruling now protects one of Georgia’s most valuable economic and natural resources.”
As a result of the ruling, Gwinnett County will have to seek a new permit for its F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center, which is the county’s largest sewage treatment plant. It currently is undergoing a $450 million expansion. O’Day and his clients will urge the county and EPD to seriously consider alternatives to degradation of the pristine lake waters.