Georgia County to Pay $1M Fine Over Sewage Leaks to Buy Time for Repairs

October 23, 2020

A suburban Atlanta county where leaky pipes keep spilling raw sewage into creeks and rivers would pay a $1.05 million fine to regulators and get seven more years to make repairs under a new proposed federal court order.

DeKalb County commissioners voted Tuesday to approve the proposed changes to a consent decree.

The county was sued in 2010 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division over continuing spills. The county settled the lawsuit, agreeing to spend more than $1 billion to fix the problems, but didn’t come close to a June 2020 deadline to complete repairs in a priority area covering about one-third of the county with the oldest and leakiest pipes.

“Obviously the major work is in front of us,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, an elected Democrat who has quadrupled county spending on sewer projects since taking office in 2017.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the new plan includes stricter oversight by regulators.

U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg will accept public comments before deciding whether or not to approve it.

The South River Watershed Alliance, an environmental coalition that sued to force stiffer action, expressed doubts.

“Fixing sewer infrastructure takes time and I would much rather see a longer timeline with hard interim milestones that EPA enforces than a rush job crammed into an arbitrary and unrealistic deadline,” said alliance board President Jacqueline Echols.

County officials call the new December 2027 deadline for priority area repairs “aggressive but achievable.” The county would have to file more frequent progress reports and could be fined if it doesn’t rehabilitate certain amounts of sewers each year. DeKalb would agree to repair 103 repeat spill sites in the next four years.

“The modification includes critical provisions and specific milestones that will reduce sewer spills in a timely manner, protecting DeKalb residents and Georgia’s water resources,” said Kevin Chambers, a division spokesman.

The plan also includes measures that officials hope will let construction and development resume in certain southern and western parts of the county where it has been stalled because of limited sewer capacity. Those areas tend to be poorer than other parts of DeKalb.

“What this program will do is bring some equity to the situation,” Commissioner Larry Johnson said.

About 30 sewer spills were reported in DeKalb earlier this month amid heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Delta, including a 4 million gallon spill near Lithonia. There were even spills in one location where county officials had spent $1.3 million to solve repeat leaks.

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