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DeKalb, feds reach ‘agreement in principle’ on county sewer fixes

A DeKalb County Watershed worker posts sewage spill notifications on along Miriam Lane near Gena Drive in Decatur, where frequent sewage overflow occurrences have been cited. DeKalb County is still tackling ongoing sewer issues since CEO Michael Thurmond took over in 2017. DeKalb County is under a federal consent decree to repair its aging and overwhelmed wastewater system and has dedicated more than $300 million to the cause in recent years. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
A DeKalb County Watershed worker posts sewage spill notifications on along Miriam Lane near Gena Drive in Decatur, where frequent sewage overflow occurrences have been cited. DeKalb County is still tackling ongoing sewer issues since CEO Michael Thurmond took over in 2017. DeKalb County is under a federal consent decree to repair its aging and overwhelmed wastewater system and has dedicated more than $300 million to the cause in recent years. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The agreement would extend the deadline and involve the county paying a penalty

The court-mandated deadline for DeKalb County to fix its long-neglected wastewater system and eliminate sewer spills passed last month, the requirements unmistakably unmet.

But a new agreement may be coming soon.

In a status report filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, attorneys for the federal government said “an agreement in principle” had been reached to extend the original June 20 deadline set forth in a 2011 consent decree between DeKalb and environmental regulators.

Few other details were provided. But the court filing said the new agreement would be “in line with the stated goals” of the initial arrangement, which ordered DeKalb to overhaul about one-third of its sewer system and come into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. The filing also said the renegotiated agreement with federal and state regulators would involve “additional obligations on the county,” including a more regimented schedule for improvements and a fine.

ExplorePREVIOUS COVERAGE: Despite spate of sewer spills, DeKalb CEO says progress being made

The original consent decree gave DeKalb about 8 ½ years to stem the tide of sewage spilling into local waterways, where it can endanger public health and the environment by spreading bacteria like E. coli.

Progress was hampered from the outset by negligence, mismanagement and corruption within the county. While efforts have been refocused since DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond took office in 2017, the county is still years away from any version of completion or compliance.

DeKalb officials declined to comment Monday on a renegotiated agreement..

Representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Attorney General’s office declined comment as well. So did a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, whose attorneys are representing the interests of federal regulators.

The DOJ spokesman did, however, say that any proposal would go through an approval process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before being presented in court for consideration by Judge Steven D. Grimberg, who was assigned to the consent decree case when it was reopened last month.

Changes to the agreement would also be subject to a 30-day public comment period, he said.

A potential timeline for all of that to happen remained unclear Monday. But more information could emerge as soon as Tuesday morning, when Grimberg will hear arguments in a separate but related lawsuit.

The South River Watershed Alliance filed its own suit against DeKalb County last fall, arguing that it had not done enough to address sewer spills and that regulators had failed to "diligently prosecute" the consent decree. The latter is likely to be a focus of a 10 a.m. hearing regarding DeKalb's motion to dismiss the suit.

Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance, doesn’t think the timing is a coincidence.

“Seems the timing of the ‘agreement in principle’ was influenced by the need to show some amount of agreement between EPA and DeKalb on extending the consent decree going into (Tuesday’s) hearing,” she said. “Makes you wonder what would have happened without the incentive of SRWA’s lawsuit.”