With just a couple of months remaining until DeKalb County’s federal consent decree is set to expire, South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) representatives recently observed that a majority of the county’s sewer spills have occurred in areas that are not prioritized under the decree.
In 2011, DeKalb County entered into an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division (EPD) after the county’s reported violations of the Clean Water Act. The decree requires the county to clean, repair, enlarge and maintain its sanitary sewer pipes in “priority areas” to reduce sewer overflows by June 20, 2020.
Jackie Echols, board chair of SRWA—an advocacy organization for the South River which runs through DeKalb—said the group’s attorney recently reviewed documents related to SRWA’s 2019 Clean Water Act lawsuit against the county and found that two-thirds of DeKalb County is not considered priority areas in the consent decree and those nonpriority areas account for more than half of the sewage spills that have occurred in the county since 2014.
“All streams in the county are being impacted by sanitary sewage spills and to learn the consent decree only covers certain areas, and when it expires regulatory oversight by EPA and EPD ends without the problem being fixed, is mind-boggling,” said Echols.
The 48 areas identified as priority areas cover approximately 838 miles of the county’s 2,600 miles of sewer pipes, said Echols, which leaves 1,762 miles of sewer infrastructure outside the authority of the consent decree. Of the more than 1,000 spills, totaling nearly 49 million gallons of sewage, reported since July 2014 when SRWA filed its initial complaint, 51 percent of spills have occurred in nonpriority areas.
“This is a huge discovery and potentially a game changer in the fight for better water quality in the South River and its tributary streams, the environment, and public health throughout the county and downstream,” said Echols. “Streams in the county have been impacted by sanitary sewage spills dating back to before the 1972 Clean Water Act. Unsuccessful consent orders by Georgia EPD to address the problem date back to the late ‘90s.”
Earlier this year, the county saw one of its largest sewer spills near the Meadow Creek Path area of Lithonia and the area of the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is currently undergoing an expansion. A 9.2-million-gallon sewer spill was reported in February near the plant and a 7-million-gallon spill was reported three weeks later.
With the consent decree set to expire June 20, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and other county officials have stated over the years that the deadline would not be met. County spokespersons did not comment on the status of the consent decree or whether improvements have been made to areas not covered in the consent decree.
Georgia EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers would not confirm whether an extension of the consent decree is being negotiated.
“While EPD cannot speak to consent decrees for wastewater systems nationwide, a consent decree extension is not unprecedented. For example, the consent decree between EPD, EPA, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the city of Atlanta was extended in 2012 for an additional 13 years,” said Chambers. “The consent decree allows EPD and EPA to assess a penalty for each day after June 20, 2020 that DeKalb does not complete the sewer line work.”
Between 2012 and 2018, EPA and EPD assessed stipulated penalties for spills and reporting violations of $738,000 against the county, according to Chambers. In addition, EPD may require DeKalb to pay a civil penalty for spills that are in violation of DeKalb’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and state law. In 2017, EPD also assessed a penalty of $50,000 against the county for spills in violation of the county’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
County spokespersons in a February 2020 press release said the county had spent more than $301 million since 2017 on capital improvements that include wastewater treatment plant upgrades, sewer pipe rehabilitation and upsizing, manhole repairs and replacement, and lift station renovations.
At the time of the consent decree, the county estimated a total expenditure of $700 million to complete the requirements under the consent decree and other improvements, according to the EPA website.