DeKalb Watershed Management director resigns with scathing letter

Scott Towler, director of the DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management speaks during a groundbreaking for phase 2 of the Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant on October 23, 2015. He submitted a scathing resignation letter on March 5, 2018. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

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Scott Towler, director of the DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management speaks during a groundbreaking for phase 2 of the Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant on October 23, 2015. He submitted a scathing resignation letter on March 5, 2018. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

On the same day that DeKalb County faced a massive water main break that caused widespread outages, its leaders were also forced to respond to accusations of wrongdoing and illegal actions from its Department of Watershed Management director.

Scott Towler submitted a scathing two-page letter on Monday to the county’s deputy chief operating officer, Ted Rhinehart. In it, he accused Rhinehart and the county CEO of urging him to make decisions that violate federal and state laws and leaving him out of meetings and decision-making once he resisted.

VIDEO: More on the DeKalb water outage

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DeKalb residents could be under boil water advisory until Saturday after massive main break. Video by John Spink/AJC

"I have no choice but to resign this position — despite significant impact to my life and my family — because of the ongoing retaliatory actions by you and CEO Mike Thurmond in response to my refusal to violate the law and participate in unlawful activities in the operation of DWM, especially those which are a violation of the county's Consent Decree and federal and state environmental laws," Towler wrote.

Contacted at his home Wednesday, Towler declined to make additional comments. In his letter, he said he would continue working until March 16. During a news conference held by the county on the water main break on Wednesday, Reggie Wells was introduced as the interim director.

Thurmond’s office denied Towler’s allegations and said it is his letter that is potentially unlawful.

“Mr. Towler is a disgruntled employee that has made a series of slanderous, baseless accusations against county leadership that are not grounded in fact,” LaKeitha Carlos, the CEO’s chief of staff, said.

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DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during a press conference to discuss the water main break on Buford Highway at the Doraville City Council Chambers Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Doraville, Ga. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during a press conference to discuss the water main break on Buford Highway at the Doraville City Council Chambers Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Doraville, Ga. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

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DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during a press conference to discuss the water main break on Buford Highway at the Doraville City Council Chambers Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Doraville, Ga. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

DeKalb's Watershed Management department has been plagued by issues over the years, including outdated meters that led to widespread water billing issues and a decaying sewage system that is the source of regular spills.

The county has been under a federal consent decree since 2011. This agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the county to update and improve its network of sewage pipes and reduce the number of sanitation spills by 2020. County officials say they are working to meet the deadlines and submit twice-yearly reports to the federal government showing that progress has been made.

Towler complained publicly last year  after learning county officials allowed a health clinic to open without requiring a mitigation plan for the impact of its sewage. Towler later reported the problem was fixed when the county replaced manhole covers nearby. DeKalb was never cited for any consent decree violations in that case.

In his resignation letter, Towler says that Rhinehart eventually took over day-to-day operations at Watershed Management and began to ignore his staffing decisions and other recommendations. Towler wrote that the EPA recently gave the county feedback on its implementation of new sewer capacity policies that confirmed objections he raised in the past, but the information was not shared with him.

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March 7, 2018 DeKalb County: This driver ignored road closed signs and preceded to drive into the deep water on Buford Highway. She successfully retreated and returned to the direction previously driven. Buford Highway was flooded just north of I-285 in DeKalb County due to a water main break on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Water began flowing across the roadway in Doraville just before 4:30 a.m., according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. The break is impacted services across DeKalb, which was put under a boil water advisory. DeKalb Medical rescheduled elective surgeries. City Schools of Decatur were closed. Several businesses were flooded. And multiple cities reported water outages. A reporter asked DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond when service would be restored. “As soon as humanly possible,” he said. “We’d like to have this resolved within 24 hours.” Thurmond said the break was the result of a structural failure. Perimeter Mall and Emory University closed due to the water main break. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

March 7, 2018 DeKalb County: This driver ignored road closed signs and preceded to drive into the deep water on Buford Highway. She successfully retreated and returned to the direction previously driven. Buford Highway was flooded just north of I-285 in DeKalb County due to a water main break on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Water began flowing across the roadway in Doraville just before 4:30 a.m., according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. The break is impacted services across DeKalb, which was put under a boil water advisory. DeKalb Medical rescheduled elective surgeries. City Schools of Decatur were closed. Several businesses were flooded. And multiple cities reported water outages. A reporter asked DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond when service would be restored. “As soon as humanly possible,” he said. “We’d like to have this resolved within 24 hours.” Thurmond said the break was the result of a structural failure. Perimeter Mall and Emory University closed due to the water main break. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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March 7, 2018 DeKalb County: This driver ignored road closed signs and preceded to drive into the deep water on Buford Highway. She successfully retreated and returned to the direction previously driven. Buford Highway was flooded just north of I-285 in DeKalb County due to a water main break on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Water began flowing across the roadway in Doraville just before 4:30 a.m., according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. The break is impacted services across DeKalb, which was put under a boil water advisory. DeKalb Medical rescheduled elective surgeries. City Schools of Decatur were closed. Several businesses were flooded. And multiple cities reported water outages. A reporter asked DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond when service would be restored. “As soon as humanly possible,” he said. “We’d like to have this resolved within 24 hours.” Thurmond said the break was the result of a structural failure. Perimeter Mall and Emory University closed due to the water main break. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“I am concerned by the county’s decision to keep this critical information from the director of DWM — as well as from the citizens of DeKalb — in an effort to hide the obvious compliance issues with its policies,” he said in the letter.

The county said in a news release Wednesday that all rules and laws have been followed and that communication with state and federal oversight agencies is ongoing.

“The county has been in constant contact and collaboration with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division throughout the development of all policies and protocols, and we are confident that those policies and all actions taken by the county related to the consent decree have been in full compliance with all applicable laws and standards,” the release said.

-- Staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.


RECENT DEKALB WATER MAIN BREAKS

March 14, 2017: There was a water main break along Beech Drive at Memorial Drive after a contractor hit a 36-inch main while installing fiber optic cable. A sinkhole forced closure of Beech Drive through Decatur for hours.

Aug. 21, 2017: A water main break on Old Spring House Lane from Chamblee Dunwoody Road in Dunwoody shut down the street. Two days for DeKalb Water Management had repaired the break but the road was to remain closed for at least for another day as new asphalt was scheduled to be installed.

Oct. 5, 2017: A 36-inch water main broke and sent water rushing through a Decatur neighborhood, flooding homes.Gallons of water seeped from underground and gushed down Parkhill Drive in Decatur for hours, residents reported.It took crews more than 7 hours just to find the break, according to news reports.

Oct. 18, 2017: Two weeks later, a break in an 8-inch water line in north DeKalb closed part of Buford Highway around Beverly Hills Drive for portions of two days.

Oct. 26, 2017: A break in a 6-inch residential water line on Chesterfield Lane sent "a river of muddy water" streaming across LaVista Road near Briarlake Elementary School.

Late November 2017: A water main breaks on Antelope Lane.

Jan. 6, 2018: A water main breaks at Champlain Street and Geneva Street.

Jan. 19, 2018: A water main break shuts down Covington Highway in both directions at Lithonia Industrial Boulevard in Lithonia. The break, which reportedly occurred when a pipe froze during wintry conditions, forced DeKalb County Watershed to make repairs during below-freezing temperatures.

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