Michael Thurmond sat back in his chair, peered out the window of his sixth-floor office and chuckled.
A reporter had just asked him if he’s glad it finally stopped raining.
“When you’re the CEO of DeKalb County, you pay close attention to weather reports,” Thurmond says. “And when it rains, you don’t sleep that well at night.”
The latest reason for Thurmond’s restless nights sits a dozen or so miles south of his downtown Decatur office.
On Tuesday afternoon, the stench of sewage was fading in the air above the Lithonia-area stretch of Snapfinger Creek. But the yellow signs — NOTICE OF A SANITARY SEWER SPILL — remained perched throughout the surrounding middle-class subdivisions.
The signs are reminders of the 9.2-million-gallon sewage spill that took place a few days earlier. It was the largest flow of raw sewage into a local waterway reported by the spill-prone county in more than a decade.
When it rains in DeKalb, wastewater often pours out of storm drains and manholes and aging pipes, creating public health and environmental hazards.
The spills are a result of decades of neglect and mismanagement, a woeful pattern that Thurmond says the county has begun to correct since he took office three years ago.
His administration has thus far allocated more than $300 million toward projects targeting the issues — spending driven by a legal agreement between the county and federal and state regulators. And until recently, a diminishing amount of sewage was flowing into communities, suggesting progress was being made.
But the historical amount of rain that fell in the first two months of 2020 — more than 18 inches, the most in the Atlanta area since 1936 — has produced a deluge of new spills and renewed public scrutiny of DeKalb County’s efforts.
“If I was a citizen I’d be ticked off too,” Thurmond said this week. “So I get it. The only thing I say to them is, you know, it’s a new day now.”
DeKalb County entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division in 2011, after the regulatory agencies filed lawsuits against the county for repeatedly violating the Clean Water Act. The agreement ordered DeKalb to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul its decrepit wastewater system and eliminate sewage spills in about 8 1/2 years.
Thurmond has said there is no chance that the county will meet the original June deadline to complete the work. An extension is being negotiated, though those involved are not yet commenting on the details.
A spokesman said the EPD remains “disappointed” that the original deadline will not be met. But he said the agency is “in regular and frequent communication with EPA and DeKalb regarding DeKalb’s efforts.”
For many years, those efforts amounted to little of substance, whether due to incompetence, corruption or petty politics.
The county didn't get a manager in place to oversee the large-scale projects until three years after the clock started ticking. It has been fined for underreporting spills. And the county's original stance conceded that there were issues with fats, oils and grease clogging up the system while largely brushing aside the notion that weather was also fueling spills.
“I am extremely frustrated that DeKalb continues to degrade the environment with sewer spills,” said DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester, who has made it a mission to publicize the county’s spills. “Multiple administrations have slow-walked the fixes and dismissed important professional advice.”
Thurmond has long touted the water and sewer systems as his top priority.
After he became CEO in Jan. 2017, his administration took more than a year to conduct analysis and develop a new strategy. As Thurmond envisions it, DeKalb is now in the third year of a redesigned 10-year plan that will involve more than $1 billion and go beyond whatever the renegotiated consent decree requires.
About $301 million has already been spent on projects that are either completed or currently in progress.
Money has been allocated for treatment plant upgrades, pipe rehabilitation and upsizing, and manhole repairs. County officials say that, in 2019, 11 new miles of water pipe and seven new miles of sewer pipe were installed, as well as 27 miles of new sewer pipe lining. It also made 69 "spot repairs" and demolished a home on Melanie Court near Decatur — enabling repairs at the county's most recurring spill site.
The maintenance efforts last year also included cleaning 734 miles of pipes; inspecting 1,100 creek crossings; clearing 14 million square feet of easement; and conducting 261 miles of “root control,” according to county officials.
Tree roots often grow into aging pipes and have been a common cause of spills.
In 2018 and 2019, the county reported total spill volumes of about 5.7 million and 5.3 million gallons, respectively. Both were a dramatic improvement from the 14 million gallons reported in 2017.
But 2020 has been a different story.
The massive spill near Lithonia last week — the result of the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant’s capacity being overwhelmed by rain — added to an already ignominious start. Less than two months into the year, DeKalb’s total spill volume now sits somewhere north of 12 million gallons.
Kevin Jeselnik serves as general counsel for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization.
He said DeKalb’s recent spate of spills underscores the need for strong oversight by the EPA, and that the scope of remaining work is “immense.”
But, Jeselnik said, “at the very least, the county now seems to be seriously working on the issue.”
Credit: DeKalb County
Credit: DeKalb County
Late last week, a curious edition of DeKalb County’s email newsletter arrived in the inboxes of residents and other interested parties. Its only contents were a copied-and-pasted version of an NBC News story.
“BREAKING NEWS,” it said. “More than 211 million gallons of sewage spill into Fort Lauderdale’s waterways.”
Thurmond denied knowing the origin of the email, which drew the ire of at least one resident who spoke during a recent commission meeting. But the CEO said he smiled when he saw it.
In the wake of the recent spate of sewer spills, he and the county have launched an offensive of sorts.
Thurmond has made it a point to reference other communities’ issues, while also more directly criticizing the inaction of previous administrations. Press releases about DeKalb spills now regularly include more information about the county’s ongoing efforts at improving things.
Thurmond said he’s not making excuses and has embraced DeKalb’s sewage issues as his to shoulder. But that context is an important part of making progress, he said.
“One day,” he said, “I’ll be at a place where I can enjoy the rain.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Sewer spills send harmful pathogens like E.coli into local waterways, creating a public health threat and increasing the chances of people becoming sick by having contact with the water. They can also have enormous environmental impacts on wildlife, like large-scale fish kills when by depleting the water’s oxygen supply and suffocating fish when bacteria already in the water breaks down the waste.
Tyler Estep is a reporter covering DeKalb County, its government and its people. A Gwinnett County native and University of Georgia graduate, he has been with the AJC since 2015. He previously covered his home county and served stints on the paper's hyperlocal and breaking news teams.