By Joel Hall
On Wednesday afternoon in the Spivey Cove subdivision, plumes of smoke could be seen bellowing from the rooftops of houses on Christian Court in Jonesboro.
What may have appeared to be a series of house fires, was really the Clayton County Water Authority (CCWA) pumping smoke into the sewer system to check for blocks and leakages.
According to the CCWA, breaks, blockages, leaks, and cracks in the county's sewer system can lead to waste-water plant failures, sewage overflows, and contamination of local creeks and streams.
Since 2000, the CCWA has aggressively tracked down potential problems through the Water Authority's Smoke Testing Program. "It's a find-and-fix program," said Charles Ecton, CCWA waste-water maintenance coordinator. "We don't backlog our repairs. We do them right away."
Throughout the year, the smoke testing program travels to different neighborhoods in the county, scanning the sewers to locate and repair leaks, blockages, and outdated pipes. Technicians remove manhole covers in certain portions of a street, pump vegetable-based liquid smoke into the sewer system using a large industrial fan, and check for smoke seeping from areas of pipe.
Closed-circuit television crews monitor the sewers to check for obstructions and cracks in the pipes. Damaged or aging pipes are removed and replaced by work crews.
The smoke can also detect whether home owners are properly connected to the sewer system or illegally connected. "It's a lot of trouble shooting," said Chris Stanley, CCWA sewer maintenance and rehabilitation crew leader.
"If we pop a manhole and we see that the manhole is holding [smoke], we know that there is a blockage somewhere down the line. If there is smoke coming out of the ground, then there is smoke coming out of the system. That is what we are up here trying to prevent," said Stanley.
Ecton said when the sewer lines have cracks and leaks, rain water and ground water can seep in, overloading water reclamation plants beyond their capacity to recycle waste water. The result, he said, can be overflow of sewage in the streets, or worse, into creeks and streams.
"Rainwater getting into the system will cut down on the capacity and can lead to a catastrophic failure of the plant," said Ecton. "It's a very negative impact on the environment. We're really the stewards of the environment, because our main goal is keeping the streams out of our sewers and sewers out of our streams."
In 2007, the program smoke tested, on average, 68,545 feet of pipe a month, for a total of 822,542 feet that year. From 2000, when the program started, to today, Ecton said the program has reduced sewage overflows by nearly 50 percent.
Mike Thomas, CCWA general manager, said the program is just one way the CCWA is making the best use of its resources. "Not only can [rainwater infiltration] cause overflows and environmental damage, it also costs us money to treat that water," said Thomas. The program is "just responsible management of the resources we have. If you don't check these things early, they can grow into a lot bigger problem."