Facing mandate, DeKalb approves water-sewer increases

DeKalb County, after dealing with 800 raw sewage spills over five years, has instructed its residents to plug the problem with their wallets.

Acting on a consent decree by the Environmental Protection Agency, the DeKalb County Commission voted 6-1 on Tuesday to raise water and sewer rates 11 percent for each of 2012, 2013 and 2014. Rates already were set to rise 16 percent in 2011, an increase that will bump an average family's bimonthly bill from $165 to $178.

On Monday, the EPA mandated that the county make $700 million in improvements to its 50-year-old sewer system, and the commission responded by authorizing $1.35 billion in upgrades, including work on the water system.

“One of things we as a country want is clean water and we have to pay for it,” said Stan Meiburg, EPA deputy regional administrator.

DeKalb officials heard protests from hundreds of residents, but said the increases were necessary.

“We have to undertake a balancing act of protecting the public health of DeKalb citizens and their pocketbooks,” Commissioner Lee May said. “We didn’t want to deal with just the minimum. If we didn’t act now, later will be more expensive. Ask [former Atlanta mayor] Shirley Franklin; she didn’t have a choice.”

Said Franci Kung'u, county water director, "The consent decree is not a suggestion; it’s a mandate."

Commissioner Elaine Boyer, the board’s only Republican, was the only dissenting vote regarding the rate hikes. She wanted to wait until after a 30-day public comment period put in place by the EPA.

On top of the required upgrades, the county must pay a $453,000 fine and spend $600,000 to clean up the South River, Snapfinger and the South Fork of Peachtree Creek.

“The action by the U.S. EPA is a direct result of citizen complaints of chronic sanitary overflows in their neighborhoods, and a direct result of the county’s lack of prompt response in repairing the sewage collection system,” said Doug Denton, South River Watershed Alliance vice president.

County officials insist taxpayers got off easy after a year of negotiations with the EPA.

“We could have easily spent billions,” Kung’u said. “The EPA and [U.S. Department of Justice] agreed we don’t have to assess every single sewer line. This saved us a significant amount.”

In 1998, the City of Atlanta signed a consent decree in which it agreed to make $4 billion in sewer upgrades. However, Atlanta’s system is different than DeKalb’s, and the city fought the decree, compiling considerable legal expense.

However, Jefferson County, Ala., has a system similar to DeKalb in size and type, and is struggling with $3 billion in upgrades to meet its EPA mandate, Kung’u said.

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis referred to the mandated upgrades as a “stimulus program” and promised that local residents and companies would be given the first opportunity to take advantage of the $1.35 billion in contracts.

Denton, who also serves on the DeKalb Soil and Water Conservation District, said this was  just another environmental mess in which DeKalb residents will have to subsidize the clean-up.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained previous consent orders issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to DeKalb. In 2005, the state cited the county for spills from the Snapfinger plant.

Bill Noell of the EPD said DeKalb appears to have met all requirements from those orders, with the exception of an outstanding mandate he still needed to examine.

In 2006, the state fined the DeKalb $265,875 and chastised the county for failing to address spills and residential complaints. The order specifically referenced a 4-million gallon spill in March 2006 and a 10-million gallon spill in January 2006.

The county since has reported numerous spills of untreated sewage: 170 in 2007, 149 in 2008, 135 in 2009 and 126 from Jan. 1-Oct. 8 this year, according to the EPA.

That doesn’t include another 10,000 gallons of sewage that leaked rom a pipe on Second Avenue in Decatur earlier this month, or 17,000 gallons that spilled into neighborhoods on Monday, according to water records.

Fecal matter and industrial waste have barred swimmers from the South River for years. Residential sewage backups have shut down streets and ruined homes.

May, chairman of the commission’s public works committee, learned firsthand about the Monday night leaks when a pipe burst and 8,100 gallons of sewage spilled into his Lithonia neighborhood.

“Sewage was coming out of the toilet," he said. "There was an inch of water in the whole first floor. My backyard is full of sewage right now. Frozen sewage.”