DeKalb commissioners sign off on changes to sewer consent decree

A sign noting a recent sewer spill near Green Street in the Oakhurst neighborhood. SPECIAL PHOTO
A sign noting a recent sewer spill near Green Street in the Oakhurst neighborhood. SPECIAL PHOTO

DeKalb commissioners have signed off on changes to the billion-dollar consent decree that’s meant to guide attempts to fix the county’s spill-plagued sewer system and bring it into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

The proposed modifications include a 7 1/2-year extension, a $1 million fine and additional oversight from environmental regulators. The plan will now be submitted to the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, where the issue has been litigated since 2010.

The proposal is then opened to a public comment period before Judge Steven D. Grimberg makes a final decision on its adoption.

“What you’ve done is lay a strong foundation for the future of DeKalb," Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson said Tuesday, addressing county CEO Michael Thurmond.

ExploreDeKalb launching $438M project to repair, improve troubled sewer system

DeKalb first entered into an agreement with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly a decade ago, after the regulators filed suit over the county’s frequent sewer spills into local waterways. The original consent decree mandated that the county drastically reduce spills and repair large swaths of its long-neglected infrastructure by June 20, 2020.

Thanks to years of neglect, mismanagement and corruption, the county didn’t come close to meeting that deadline.

The extension and other proposed modifications are the product of years-long negotiations between the county, the EPD and the EPA.

“Obviously the major work is in front of us,” said Thurmond, who took office in 2017.

‘Critical provisions and specific milestones’

There are many key changes proposed in the modified consent decree.

The deadline for big-picture, priority-area sewer repairs is December 2027, a timeline that county officials called “aggressive but achievable." The proposal also requires the county to file more extensive and frequent progress reports, and calls for increased fines if a set amount of sewer pipe is not rehabilitated each year.

The proposal also includes a list of 103 repeat spill sites throughout the county. Fixes to those sites — which Thurmond said run the gamut of complexity — are a priority and must be completed in the next four years.

“The modification includes critical provisions and specific milestones that will reduce sewer spills in a timely manner, protecting DeKalb residents and Georgia’s water resources,” said Kevin Chambers, a spokesman for the Georgia EPD.

Also included in the proposal is a new “capacity assurance program” that officials hope will help enable development to resume in underserved parts of the county.

The vast majority of the county’s sewer spills occur in what’s known as the Snapfinger basin, an area that covers south and western DeKalb. Hundreds of development projects in the area — which also has lower median incomes than the rest of the county — have been stalled because of the need for repairs and the limited available sewer capacity.

Under the CAP program, the county would be able to bank credit for repairs and other spill-limiting projects. It would be able to take incremental advantage of the “new” capacity that’s available, allowing some developments to move forward rather than waiting until entire projects are completed.

“What this program will do is bring some equity to the situation,” Commissioner Larry Johnson said.

‘A way forward’

Some folks aren’t sold on DeKalb’s plan — and are raising concerns about the efficacy of work that’s already been done.

About 30 sewer spills were reported in DeKalb earlier this month, as the remnants of Hurricane Delta slammed metro Atlanta with heavy rain. Many of the spills were in recurring problem areas, including a 4-million-gallon spill at a site near Lithonia that had already seen three multimillion gallon spills this year.

Two smaller spills were also reported this month in the Oakhurst neighborhood of Decatur, in the area of a $1.3-million repair and replacement project that was recently completed. Just over 38,000 gallons spilled from new manholes on Green and South McDonough streets.

“It’s really disappointing and sad,” resident Ash Miller said.

The South River Watershed Alliance, a local environmental advocacy group, has been a longtime critic of DeKalb’s sewer repair efforts. Board president Jacqueline Echols said the proposed modification to the consent decree is impractical.

“No one wants this problem solved more than I do,” Echols said. “However, fixing sewer infrastructure takes time and I would much rather see a longer timeline with hard interim milestones that EPA enforces than a rush job crammed into an arbitrary and unrealistic deadline.”

Thurmond, who has roughly quadrupled the county’s annual spending on sewer-related projects since taking office, said he’s “absolutely” confident that the work can get done. He said the $1.05 million fine that’s included in the updated agreement could’ve been much higher, and the fact that it wasn’t speaks to regulators' faith in the county.