The good news is that DeKalb County’s problems with its sewer system might have been exaggerated. The bad news is that a mess of raw waste is still spewing from county manholes at unprecedented levels.
DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond says the county’s sewers can handle more new construction than previously thought. But he also acknowledges that the number of sewage spills that reach public waterways is skyrocketing this year, even as the county is under a federal court order meant to drastically reduce spills.
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The county relied on an “overly conservative” computer model that misrepresented the danger of sewage spills, Thurmond said. The model, developed by CH2M, a contractor for the county, gave the impression that DeKalb couldn’t accommodate new growth.
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He said the model failed to include complete maps of the county’s sewer system, leading to inaccuracies. A review by an outside firm, Brown & Caldwell, confirmed to the county that CH2M’s evaluation was too restrictive. CH2M responded that its model was “appropriately conservative.”
“Based on the new engineering analysis, it appears as if the crisis was a crisis that never existed,” Thurmond said in an interview. “It’s clear that the problem is not as severe as first thought.”
While DeKalb’s aging sewer system needs extensive upgrades, Thurmond said he hopes it won’t put the brakes on a building boom taking place across the county and metro Atlanta area. The county is working with developers to assess sewer capacity before construction starts, in some cases requiring holding tanks for excess sewage.
DeKalb has been under a federal court order since 2011 to upgrade its sewer system at a cost of about $280 million. That cost would have risen by $500 million if the county’s sewer capacity were as limited as CH2M estimated, Thurmond said.
But environmentalists say DeKalb is falling far short. The county had 111 sewage spills through the first six months of this year compared to 135 spills all of last year. Heavy rainfall so far this year, combined with clogs caused when residents dump grease in the sink, contributed to the rise in sewage spills, according to the county.
“The argument that it’s not as bad as it seems is ludicrous,” said Jackie Echols, president of the board for the South River Watershed Alliance. “DeKalb has done nothing previously to prevent spills. It was cheaper to pay fines than to fix the problem. They’re looking for a way to continue to pollute.”
DeKalb was ordered last month to pay $294,000 in fines for spills in 2015 and 2016, as well as for spills that hadn’t been reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
In addition, DeKalb has been fined every year since it agreed to federally mandated repairs of its sewer system. Those penalties, based on the number and size of annual spills, amounted to $630,000 from 2011 to 2014, according to documents provided by the county to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Georgia’s Open Records Act.
Echols said unless DeKalb makes significant progress toward fighting sewage spills, federal oversight could be extended beyond its expiration date in mid-2020.
“DeKalb has to take action to stop this, and we’ve got to see that happen every year in terms of a reduction in spills,” she said.
If the county wants to stop paying fines, it must reduce or eliminate sewer overflows, said Dawn Harris-Young, a spokeswoman for the EPA.
Still, Thurmond said the county is on track to meet deadlines for sewer improvements outlined in its consent decree with the federal government.
He said county workers have already removed more than 80 tons of debris from clogged sewer lines, and the county plans to install 4,000 solid manholes that will prevent rainwater from overflowing sewer lines. In addition, a more accurate sewer capacity model will be completed by the end of the year, along with policies and procedures for how to best use it.
“We must do what’s necessary to live up to and fulfill the letter and spirit of the consent decree,” Thurmond said. “That’s my prime motivation — not necessarily how it relates to developers or anyone else.”
However, the previous assessment of the county’s sewer system by CH2M “does not reflect real world conditions,” according to a July 12 memo to Thurmond from DeKalb Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ted Rhinehart. CH2M’s model overestimated peak flows into sewer lines during rainy weather, Rhinehart wrote.
CH2M acknowledged that its model can be improved with additional data but said it was useful as a preliminary assessment tool, according to a response to the outside review by Brown & Caldwell.
The company “does not agree that the peak flow approach leads to substantially conservative results,” according to the April 14 memo from CH2M and the Consent Decree Project Management Team. Rainfall was one of several components used to evaluate sewer system limitations.
DeKalb Commissioner Greg Adams said he hopes to see a substantial reduction in sewage spills over the next year as a result of the work the county is doing to clean and repair its pipes.
“We don’t want to be giving away money to the EPA,” Adams said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction. I really do.”
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