Consent decree: EPA mandates DeKalb clean water-sewer system

Originally published Dec. 13, 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency has fined DeKalb County for more than 836 sewage spills over the last five years and mandated it make repairs to its aging water and sewer system.

On Monday, the U.S. Attorney General and the EPA issued a consent decree, ordering DeKalb to improve its sewer system, similar to a federal mandate made against the City of Atlanta several years ago. Failure to meet the decree could mean additional fines of up to $37,500 a day.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copies of the consent decree and a settlement agreement, which indicate DeKalb has already agreed to make improvements. The county also agreed to pay a $453,000 fine for the spills and an additional $600,000 to clean up the South River, Snapfinger Creek and the South Fork on Peachtree Creek near Emory University.

The fine will be split between the federal and state governments.

The DeKalb County Commission on Tuesday is scheduled to vote on $1.35 billion in upgrades to its water and sewer system.

The consent decree calls for about $700 million in upgrades.

County Commissioner Lee May said the vote only says when and how the county will pay, but either way, taxpayers are responsible for the bill.

The upgrades mean an average family’s bimonthly bill will go from $165 to $178 this year and then continue to increase 11 percent for the next three years.

On Monday, the EPA filed a 17-page complaint filed against the county, alleging 836 sewage overflows in DeKalb from 2006 to October 2010. The spills, which are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act, emanated from broken manholes and clogged sewer lines, according to the complaint.

The spills pose a "significant threat" to public health because raw sewage has high levels of bacteria that can end up in streets, yards and waterways, the EPA said.

The spills have resulted in thousands of gallons of untreated sewage, including fecal matter and industrial waste spilling into local waterways.

“Unless restrained by an order of the court, DeKalb County will continue to discharge pollutants from point sources without a permit or other authorization,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote.

The 104-page consent decree orders the county to make drastic improvements over the next eight years.

The EPA released the documents after the AJC learned that the federal government has been in discussions with the county for about a year

“The feds are looking closely,” May said before the EPA's announcement. “Whenever we have sewage spills, they’re watching. If we don’t do it, the federal government will come in and make us do it at their prices.”

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis attributed the spills to the county’s 50-year-old sewer system, which he said is one of the oldest and largest in the southeast. The system includes 2,600 miles of sewer lines, 55,000 manhole covers and 66 lift stations.

“These improvements will ensure long-term protection of public health and the environment,” Ellis said Monday. “The consent decree provides a road map to work cooperatively with the EPA and the [Georgia Environmental Protection Division].”

County officials said they plan to work with the federal government and not fight them like the City of Atlanta.

In 1998, former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell signed a federal consent decree committing to $4 billion in upgrades to improve water quality. The city has until 2014 to finish the work and is currently seeking a 15-year extension for a small part of the project. Atlanta’s federal decree came after a lawsuit filed by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The EPA and state EPD later joined the suit.

DeKalb officials said they have been trying to avoid the high costs and legal battles that plagued Atlanta by moving forward with the work, which includes 80 separate projects. County officials said they hope to take advantage of the current low interest rates and construction costs.

“Sewage overflows are a significant problem in the southeast because of inadequate and aging infrastructure,” Stan Meiburg, Deputy Regional Administrator of the EPA’s southeastern office, said in a statement. “This agreement demonstrates DeKalb County’s commitment to address long-standing sewage problems. Ultimately, this will benefit the local community and improve water quality in the Upper Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee watersheds.”

In addition to the system's age, the EPA cited problems with fats, oils and greases. County officials said they will use video cameras to find these clogs and begin repairs as soon as the commission votes on the work.

In March, the county called for $1.9 billion in water system upgrades to be paid for by a 110 percent increase in residents’ rates over five years, or annual increases of 16 percent. Since then, commissioners have whittled the upgrades down to $1.35 billion with a 11 percent increase in residents’ rates.

Half of the work is to make the county’s sewers in compliance with federal regulations, said Ted Rhinehart, DeKalb’s deputy chief officer of infrastructure. A fourth of cost is will go to upgrade the Snapfinger wastewater treatment plant, which is nearing capacity. The plant has a capacity of 36 million gallons a day and currently averages about 30 million gallons a day.

“We’re on borrowed time,” Rhinehart told the AJC.

May, chairman of the commission's public works committee, said he recently spoke with former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who led the effort to get a sales tax passed to pay for the city’s water improvements.

This month, hundreds of DeKalb residents attended community meetings, objecting to the proposed rate increases.

“Whether you call it a rate, a fee, a fine or tax, it’s still coming out of the same pocket -- yours and mine,” May said.

Commissioner Elaine Boyer, the commission's lone Republican, said she wants to wait on the vote to allow residents to comment and review the decree.

"Only a third of it is mandated by the federal government. In a time of foreclosures, we need to give residents time to review these projects," Boyer said. "But residents are saying they can't afford all of this. I just don't buy this whole $1.4 billion."

Water bill increases may be in addition to a possible tax hike. DeKalb is already facing an estimated $55 million shortfall in next year’s budget. Ellis will issue his proposed budget on Wednesday.

In addition to higher costs, further delaying the projects could mean boil water advisories, more leaks and other public health problems, Commissioner Jeff Rader said.

Two weeks ago, the county had to close portions of Second Avenue in Decatur after pipes broke and 40,800 gallons of sewage spilled, according to water department records. Last week, the county had to suspend water service for 12 hours to residents near Glenwood Road and Parkhill Drive in Decatur after a water main burst. And a rail section in Decatur is closed this weeks to repair a water main under the tracks.

May said these spills, along with other spills, have resulted in thousands of dollars in fines from the EPA.

“Their system has very similar problems to those the City of Atlanta has had,” said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, who sent a letter to the commission endorsing the projects. “What matters is they are moving to fix this critical infrastructure in the county. It’s an investment in the future.”

Like Atlanta, DeKalb’s pipes are aging and don’t have the capacity to meet any additional growth beyond the county’s 730,000 residents, Rhinehart said. However, DeKalb’s sewer system is not in as dire condition as Atlanta’s, which had its storm water and sanitary systems combined. In DeKalb, the water systems are separate, which is what the EPA recommends.

Bethea said she is pleased that the Snapfinger upgrades will improve water quality in the South River, which has been closed to swimmers since the summer when tests found fecal matter and industrial waste.

The federal government will collect comments from the public over the next 30 days before finalizing the consent decree. The county must pay the fine, which will come from its operating budget, at the end of the public comment period.

The consent decree mandates about $700 million of work, including:

  • Identify overflows of untreated sewage and their causes
  • Assess and rehabilitate all priority areas within 8 1/2 years
  • Improve management, operation and maintenance programs to prevent future overflows
  • Respond to overflows when they occur