Environment

DeKalb’s Deadline To Fix Its Sewers Was Saturday; County Didn’t Meet It

A sewer, shown last year, that goes under a DeKalb County home’s backyard crosses a creek just behind the house. Trash and debris had accumulated on the pipe. A deadline was set for the county to fix its troubled sewer system. That deadline is Saturday, but DeKalb County still has years of work left to do.
A sewer, shown last year, that goes under a DeKalb County home’s backyard crosses a creek just behind the house. Trash and debris had accumulated on the pipe. A deadline was set for the county to fix its troubled sewer system. That deadline is Saturday, but DeKalb County still has years of work left to do.
Credit Bita Honarvar / For WABE
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DeKalb County missed a federal deadline to fix its troubled sewer system. The county was given nearly nine years, but the sewers still overflow.

DeKalb, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division made an agreement in 2011 for the county to address its problem sewers.

The deadline in the consent decree was set for June 20, 2020, but the county still has years of work left to do.

In addition to backups caused by fats, oils and grease, aging and cracked pipes in the system let storm water in, leading to occasionally massive overflows when it rains. Earlier this year, millions of gallons of sewage spilled after storms.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond has said that before he came into office, the county wasted three years without making significant progress fixing the sewers, and he takes the issue seriously.

“Since January 2017, DeKalb County has made tremendous progress in the implementation of the Consent Decree,” a county spokesman wrote.

The county has spent more than $100 million since 2017 and plans to spend another $1.1 billion over the next 10 years on the consent decree, according to the spokesman.

Jackie Echols, the board president of South River Watershed Alliance, an advocacy group currently suing DeKalb over the consent decree, said she has long been concerned about the agreement.

“Just looking at what was contained in the consent decree, there wasn’t a lot there, and there wasn’t a lot that would ensure that the June 2020 deadline would come and the problems would be solved,” she said. “So here we are.”

A spokesman for the EPD said the agency is “disappointed” that the county won’t meet the deadline. But, he wrote, the EPD, EPA and DeKalb are in regular communication about the county’s work.

According to an early-June court filing, the county is in negotiations with the EPA and EPD over modifying the consent decree, including extending the deadline.

That wouldn’t be unprecedented. The deadline for the city of Atlanta, which is also fixing its sewers under a federal consent decree, was extended in 2012.

DeKalb paid $450,000 in the initial settlement with the two environmental agencies and has paid more than $700,000 more since then in fines for sewage releases and for failing to file reports on time.

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