Heavy rain overwhelmed DeKalb sewer system, exposed decades of neglect

The first sign of trouble came bubbling up in Andrea Strommen’s bathroom. Non-stop rains that deluged metro Atlanta last month had overcome the sanitation system along Mount Olive Drive, and the backup began to seep into homes in the neighborhood north of Decatur.

The county’s Watershed Management Department sent workers who dug up Strommen’s yard on Dec. 28 to repair a busted 8-inch sewer main. But when a pump to flush rainwater could not keep up, the hole filled the next day with more water and sewage.

A total of 32,335 gallons spilled along Mount Olive Drive over a two-day period with an untold amount flowing in a nearby storm drain that leads directly to Peachtree Creek.

“Our toilets and bathtubs started filling up with sewer stuff,” Strommen said. “It was gross.”

The spill got little notice outside the Laurel Ridge neighborhood, but it was hardly an isolated incident.

Over a four-day period of heavy rain at the end of December, DeKalb County reported 25 sewer spills totaling more than 1.1 million gallons.

Even as the county has made progress getting a handle on systemic issues that lead to major spills, heavy rains last month exposed another area of concern in the county’s aging, overburdened sewer system.

In 2018, the county lowered the overall volume of major spills to 5 million gallons of overflows versus 13 million recorded the previous year. The county had worked to address root causes of overflows, such as reducing fats and oils poured down kitchen drains and clearing debris that cause blockages.

But those efforts didn’t mitigate what happened in December and early January. Over a five-week period of unrelenting rain, nearly 1.9 million gallons of storm and wastewater poured from manholes and failed pipes.

The record rainfall — about 12 inches in December alone — caused most of the 57 sewer spills recorded during that period. The overflows brought new attention to damage in the system caused by years of neglect and deferred maintenance.

Many of DeKalb's spills ended up in waterways like Peachtree Creek, Snapfinger Creek and Shoal Creek. The heavy rain stretched the limits in other systems across the metro area. Most notably, a pump failure on New Year's Eve at Cobb County's water treatment plant caused a sewage overflow into a tributary of the Chattahoochee River. Cobb officials still haven't said how much untreated wastewater was released.

DeKalb's problems, however, go back years, and a 2010 agreement with state and federal officials that requires fixes by the end of the decade has increased the stakes.

“It’s very disheartening for me because the county should be much further down the road in getting this problem fixed,” said county commissioner Nancy Jester, a Republican from Dunwoody.

Jester is critical of CEO Michael Thurmond's administration, arguing that he has not done enough to address the issues, particularly in places where multiple spills have occurred. For several months, she has highlighted DeKalb's sewer spills in weekly emails to constituents and on social media.

On Dec. 28, the county recorded a 106,150-gallon spill on Roman Court in Tucker that Jester views as emblematic of the county’s failings. Jester said she exchanged emails with the homeowner and learned spills have been happening for nearly a decade.

She later learned that the address was on a list of projects that she and other commissioners approved in 2017 as part of more than $100 million in capital improvements pushed by Thurmond.

Still, no changes had come to Roman Court, Jester said.

“Here we are two years later, and there’s not a shovel in the ground,” she said.

Thurmond bristles at any suggestion that he has been unresponsive to problems with the county’s wastewater system. He said it takes time to identify the root causes of each trouble spot, come up with a plan and execute it.

As for Roman Court, he said, it is one of many projects that are approved but still not ready for construction.

Critics fail to recognize that the problems are decades in the making, Thurmond says, and he has been the chief executive for just two years.

“What I’m doing is a result of what happened and didn’t happen prior to me getting here,” he said.

Thurmond took office in January 2017 after years of turmoil at the top. The county had an interim CEO from 2013 to 2016 after former CEO Burrell Ellis was sidelined from years of ethical and legal challenges, charges he later appealed. With county leaders distracted, problems with the sewer system caught the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.

In 2010, the county entered into a consent decree and committed to spend $326 million in upgrades by 2020. Residents continue to shoulder the costs with a portion of utility bills helping to fund the fixes.

Still, some residents wonder why more is not being done two years into Thurmond’s tenure. Jester has become his most vocal critic on the seven-member Board of Commissioners. Residents have also let their displeasure be known, with many voicing concerns in online forums and at meetings.

Whitney McGinniss, who lives across the street from the spill on Mount Olive Drive, wonders if former Watershed Management director Scott Towler was on to something when he resigned in March by submitting an explosive letter accusing Thurmond and others of corruption. Towler reported being sidelined and ostracized after raising concerns about a spike in sewer spills and the county's inability to meet deadlines under the consent decree.

Thurmond said those claims are not true and are an attempt by Towler to paper over his own failings.

McGinniss said she started paying attention then, but it hit home when her family was inconvenienced for days because of the recent spill, which she worries may have tainted the area’s water supply.

Towler filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the county that is pending. McGinniss hopes the county is held accountable if his accusations turn out to be credible.

“The sewer spill that happened with this storm is just the latest in a long history of this kind of thing, this type of thing we’ve had to deal with as residents,” she said. “We all know that there was corruption and mismanagement in the past.”

DeKalb County Sewer Spills

» During the month of December and early January, 57 sewer system spills were reported in DeKalb County.

» The volume of the spills was 1,858,791 gallons of storm and wastewater.

» Most of the spills were caused by historic rainfall, roughly 12 inches in December alone.