Will DeKalb complete sewer assessments on time?

In June 2020, the consent decree DeKalb County signed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) will expire.

Before the expiration date, DeKalb County officials must fulfill certain obligations such as clean, repair, enlarge and maintain its sanitary sewer pipes so sewer overflows are reduced and eliminated.

The president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) said DeKalb County won’t be able to complete one of its tasks before the deadline ends.

In an interview with The Champion, Jacqueline Echols, president of the SRWA, said DeKalb County won’t complete its sewer assessments program by June of 2020.

“I’m not adversaries with DeKalb County. That’s not my intention. My only concern is that we do the right thing. This is about protecting the environment,” Echols said.

Echols said she was told by a “reliable source” that the sewer assessment program is 31 percent complete.    

“With such a small percentage of the priority sewer area completed, it is not possible to complete this requirement by June 2020,” Echols said in a letter to the EPA and EPD.

The Priority Sewer Assessment and Rehabilitation Program is a requirement of the consent decree that requires the county to “provide for the identification, delineation, assessment, prioritization, and rehabilitation of Priority Areas.”

DeKalb County officials held a public meeting prior to a board of commissioners meeting to discuss consent decree updates.

According to the county, DeKalb fell behind on its consent decree obligations due to failing to address high personnel turnover and having seven different watershed directors over a 10-year period.

The county also failed to properly classify sanitary sewer overflows and failed to develop or continue critical maintenance contracts.

“The mass turnover of [personnel] exposed the absence of a discreet but critical fail-safe. Written standard operating procedures were all but nonexistent. DeKalb had emerged as an urbanized juggernaut, but county departments were mired in post-World War II operational mindsets. Ground zero in this public debacle was the much-maligned Department of Watershed Management,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond in an opinion piece for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The Champion contacted DeKalb County officials and asked what the approximate level of completion for the Priority Areas Sewer Assessment and Rehabilitation Program is.

County officials responded, “In 2017, critical positions were filled, nearly 100 percent of all priority pipes were assessed and $28 million was invested in sewer upgrades. The county cleaned 220 miles of sewers, removed 5.1 tons of debris, completed 1,821 stream crossing inspections, replaced 3,000 manhole covers, held the first consent decree public update and hosted 280 other events.”

Echols said the county will not tell her a percentage of completion for the program.

“You never get a definitive answer from them,” Echols said. “They use words like ‘substantially’ complete. If you’re looking for a percentage, it’s not going to happen.”

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