Consequences of delayed sewer upgrades felt across DeKalb

The Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, in operation since 1978, is being expanded. The construction is the largest part $1.35 billion in water and sewer upgrades that are years behind schedule. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

DeKalb residents face high water bills, business hurdles and sewage spills

Sewer Problems

  • Water billing rates rose by 16 percent in 2011 and 11 percent in each of the next three years. Compounded, they add up to a 59 percent increase.
  • Dozens of development projects are being evaluated for potential sewer capacity limitations before they can be built.
  • Sewer spills continue to pollute public waters, with 125 spills reported last year.

Water bills in DeKalb have crept up 59 percent since 2011, but the county has yet to deliver on much-needed improvements to the sewer system.

DeKalb County is far behind on $1.35 billion in sewer and water upgrades — the largest public works project in the county's history. Many were scheduled to be finished by now.

In various parts of the county, aging sewer lines can't handle the load of new businesses and apartments, and sewage spills continue to pollute public rivers. And the government's latest timeline shows that work to replace pipes, build treatment plants and install water mains won't be completed until 2022.

The giant project has been delayed by unstable county management, allegations of government corruption and prolonged studies before breaking ground.

“The sins of the past are coming back to haunt this project,” said Nadine Rivers-Johnson, the co-chairwoman of a citizen advisory committee overseeing the effort.

Trouble began early on, when a contract for replacing the outdated Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant had to be rebid because of subpar construction, including a structurally unsound retaining wall. The county stopped work in September 2013 and relaunched the $187 million plant expansion last year.

Meanwhile, a special purpose grand jury found evidence of fraud and incompetence surrounding the project, and in 2013 it recommended criminal investigations of 12 people. Only one faced charges, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, and he was convicted last year of attempted extortion and fraud.

Since the infrastructure effort began in December 2010, the DeKalb Department of Watershed Management has lacked consistent leadership, going through at least four directors and two interim directors. County commissioners and residents say they hope current Watershed Director Scott Towler, who was hired last year, can get the project back on track.

“The big challenge here that I think everyone is dealing with is the size of the projects … and the nature of the work,” said Rick Hirsekorn, a program manager on the project with contractor CH2M, during a Sept. 12 meeting with county commissioners. “We need speed, no doubt, but we’d much rather report to you that things are going correctly rather than saying they’re going quickly.”

The slow rollout of sewer improvements is beginning to have consequences.

The county has identified 11 sites proposed for new businesses and apartments that have potential sewer capacity limitations, and more than 60 other projects are being evaluated to determine whether the sewer system can carry their waste without risking sewer spills. The capacity constraints are occurring in areas where the most business growth has occurred in recent years, stressing the sewer system.

In some cases, in order to proceed, developers will have to pay the cost of sewer upgrades if the county hasn’t yet scheduled improvements. A number of the sewer capacity limitations might have been avoided had upgrades been completed by now.

“The sewer system has never been kept up, and now we have capacity issues here and there where most of the development is occurring and most of the people are living,” said Commissioner Kathie Gannon. “That is not a big surprise. We’ve been doing this for years and years, waiting for this stuff to get done.”

Some of the work is required under a federal court order that mandates a reduction in the number of sewage spills that pollute public waters. Those required projects have been prioritized, and the county hasn’t missed any federal deadlines. Those projects must be completed by mid-2020.

While the number of sewage spills has steadily declined in DeKalb, the county still had 125 overflows last year. The county government acknowledged earlier this year it had underreported spills over the last four years, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to impose fines.

John Miller, the co-chairman of the project’s citizen advisory committee, said DeKalb should have planned better to avoid these problems.

“As a typical DeKalb resident, I don’t have expectations that DeKalb would meet its time frame. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true,” Miller said. “If we had moved forward aggressively with developing the models and the analysis of these lines, we might have been able to better anticipate which lines needed replacement.”

Despite the delays, DeKalb hasn’t overspent its budget for the improvements. The county had spent $249 million through the end of last year, which is about 19 percent of the total $1.345 billion dedicated amount.

DeKalb officials and commissioners blame poor management for stalling the project.

“In a perfect world, we might want to be a little further along than we are today,” said Matt Welch, a senior assistant county attorney, at the Sept. 12 meeting. “Under previously leadership, things weren’t always given the attention they needed.”

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