Ga. Flooding Gives Way To Environmental Nightmare

fromGPB

Last month's heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding in Georgia have subsided, but now new problems have cropped up. A broken sewer line dumped raw excrement into the Chattahoochee River. Environmentalists are worried about that and a bunch of other garbage that's getting washed downstream.

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Almost two feet. That's how much rain fell in metro Atlanta last month during one week of storms. Flooding killed nine people and caused millions of dollars in property damage and now it's polluting rivers and lakes downstream.

From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Susanna Capelouto reports.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: About 60 miles from Atlanta is West Point Lake.

(Soundbite of a motor)

Ms. CAPELOUTO: In a motorboat, Joe Maltese(ph) does a trash survey. He works for the nearby city of LaGrange. Debris from Atlanta's suburbs is settled against the shoreline of this manmade lake.

Mr. JOE MALTESE: That's not very pretty.

CAPELOUTO: Look at all these balls.

Mr. MALTESE: Yeah, those are tennis balls. Here's a football, basketball, basketball, softball, soccer ball and the plastic bottles, the PET is just unbelievable, the quantity here. We're probably looking at what, 500, 600 bottles here in a five to ten yard area.

CAPELOUTO: In one inlet, Maltese spots two large, metal drums.

Mr. MALTESE: Hand me that paddle. Let me flip this thing, see if it's got anything in it. I'll go ahead and mark them.

CAPELOUTO: Maltese uses a GPS device to mark the spot so it can be plotted on a map.

Mr. MALTESE: Well, we want to get those out eventually and make sure the Corps of Engineers knows about it.

CAPELOUTO: Do you know what's in them?

Mr. MALTESE: Nope.

CAPELOUTO: And that's the concern. It could just be water or dangerous chemicals. The Corps of Engineers operates West Point Lake to control flooding along the Chattahoochee River, which runs from North Georgia through Alabama to Florida. At the height of last week's flood, West Point Lake's water level rose by four feet. The force of the rising waters surprised officials. Georgia State climatologist David Stooksbury says urban sprawl is to blame.

Mr. DAVID STOOKSBURY (Climatologist, Georgia State): Areas that 30 years ago were enforced or pasture land are now paved over as roads, driveways and parking lots. This hard surface causes the rain to run off much more quickly into our creeks and streams and actually increases the amount of flooding that occurs.

CAPELOUTO: The flooding also shut down several wastewater treatment plants, sending sewage into the state's rivers. Pollution from fecal coliform bacteria was so high that Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has warned people to stay out of the river water until they know it's clean.

Governor SONNY PERDUE (Georgia): The fact is, people have to use common sense. Just like not driving in rushing water across roads, you don't go swimming in the river until the river refreshes and re-nourishes and cleanses itself.

CAPELOUTO: Georgia officials will continue to test for fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria in the state's rivers. Experts say over time, the waterways will heal, but the trash and debris have to be picked up. Dick Timmerburg(ph) heads a group of volunteers who annually clean up the shores of West Point Lake. Next month, he and hundreds of others expect to collect 60,000 pounds of trash.

Mr. DICK TIMMERBURG (Volunteer): We're certainly not going to be able to clean up the lake. I mean, there's 525 miles of shoreline. We hope to put the first dent into it, but I'm also hopeful that there will be some federal assistance that will, you know, allow us to finish the cleanup down the roads.

CAPELOUTO: Corps of Engineers officials say they are still assessing the total trash amount and estimate that cleanup of the lake could take six months.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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