Sewer spills plague DeKalb County

man holding nose

Up a creek without a paddle

DeKalb County workers are attempting to make permanent repairs at the site of a major sewer spill.

The spill, located at Snapfinger Creek which resulted in an estimated 6.4 million-gallon leak, was contained Aug. 26 by repairing the damaged concrete junction box and installing two temporary, redundant bypass systems at the creek crossing, according to DeKalb County officials.   

CEO Michael Thurmond said the county will focus on making permanent repairs and regular maintenance to the sewer system.

“Our crews have been working around the clock to repair this system and contain the spill,” Thurmond said. “We will now turn our attention to permanent repairs and the regular inspection and maintenance of our sewer infrastructure.”

A 16-inch-diameter tree growing out of a sewer pipe and concrete junction box caused the spill, which was discovered Aug. 23 near Eagle’s Beek Circle, Lithonia, on a 54-inch creek crossing, just north of the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant, a DeKalb County official said.

According to the county, the Department of Watershed Management (DWM) workers began source-tracking of the spill on July 13 after detecting high bacteria counts in the creek. The spill initially was reported on Aug. 24 by DeKalb County to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Thurmond has instructed the DWM to inspect all pipes along Snapfinger and Nancy creeks, conduct emergency inspections of creek crossings and implement a plan of regular inspections of sewer lines.

On Aug. 17, county workers were needed to contain a spill and make repairs after an estimated 3.9 million-gallon spill near Mill Creek Road in the Nancy Creek Basin in Brookhaven. County inspectors discovered that a 10-inch diameter pipe compromised by soil erosion caused the spill.

DeKalb County workers make repairs at the site of a major spill at Snapfinger Creek in the unincorporated Lithonia area.

DeKalb County workers make repairs at the site of a major spill at Snapfinger Creek in the unincorporated Lithonia area.

On Aug. 8, the county learned of the spill after being notified by the city of Atlanta about high bacteria counts in Nancy Creek.

“The preservation of our waterways is critical to sustaining a high quality of life in DeKalb County,” Thurmond said. “It is imperative that we ensure our infrastructure is properly maintained and inspected on a regular basis to ensure the protection of our creeks, tributaries and ecosystem as a whole.”

One DeKalb County commissioner said she places blame on the DWM and lack of leadership over the past few years.

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester said the turnover rate at the department needs to be addressed.

“The first problem with the management of the [Federal consent decree] and the DWM has been the significant turnover in leadership staff,” Jester said in a post on her website. “I have not yet completed three years on the Board of Commissioners, yet I have seen three directors of this department. Only one of the directors has been a licensed professional engineer—our current director.”

According to Jester, the county is behind on addressing major issues with the sewer system, including assessments of sewer lines and developing a hydraulic model of the sewer system under the consent decree.

In 2010 under an agreement with the EPA, DeKalb County officials and the EPA agreed the county would make major improvements to its sanitary sewer systems in an effort to eliminate unauthorized overflows of untreated sewage.

The agreement included creating a system-wide hydraulic model.

“Rather than listening to the professional engineers who have successfully navigated systems through these types of projects in their career, the administration has become increasingly opaque,” Jester said.

“The work that needs to be done to fix the decades of neglect of the sewer system is serious business. This is not the time for press conferences, photo ops, deft political maneuvers or bringing back former officials who got us into this predicament. More spills will continue to occur if the administration continues to ignore the hydraulic model and sound engineering judgement.”

County spokespersons have warned residents in the area to avoid the spill site and keep their pets from the waterway until further notice. The spill does not affect drinking water.

“The two recent major spills clearly indicate that DeKalb County’s inspection of its sewer system has been deficient,” Thurmond said. “The regular inspection and maintenance of our sewer infrastructure is now a top priority.”

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