By John Schaffner

DeKalb County has agreed to make major improvements to its sanitary sewer systems in an effort to eliminate unauthorized overflows of untreated sewage, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Dec. 13.

DeKalb also will pay a civil penalty of $453,000, which will be split evenly between the federal and Georgia government agencies, and implement a supplemental project valued at $600,000 to provide additional environmental benefits to the local community.

The consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta, resolves a joint federal and state complaint which alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act.

DeKalb has estimated that the injunctive relief and other related improvements may cost approximately $700 million. As part of the settlement, DeKalb has agreed to conduct a stream cleanup project at an estimated cost of $600,000.  The cleanup will focus on removal of trash and debris from segments of the South River, South Fork Peachtree Creek and Snapfinger Creek.

The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.

“This settlement will mean a healthier, safer environment for communities in DeKalb County,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.  “Like other aging sanitation systems across the country where we have reached clean water settlements, upgrading this aging infrastructure and conducting community-based cleanups will result in cleaner streams and waterways for families and children.”

“Sewage overflows are a significant problem in the Southeast because of inadequate and aging infrastructure,” said Stan Meiburg, deputy regional administrator of EPA’s Southeastern office. “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.”

DeKalb’s sanitary sewer system serves over 500,000 people.  The wastewater collection and transmission system which DeKalb owns and operates includes approximately 2,600 miles of sewer lines, 55,000 manholes, and 66 lift stations.  It is a sanitary sewer system designed to convey only municipal sewage, not storm water.

Overflows pose a significant threat to public health because raw sewage can have high concentrations of bacteria from fecal contamination, as well as disease-causing pathogens and viruses.  These overflows can occur in backyards, city streets, and directly into streams and rivers.

The major features of the consent decree relating to the sanitary sewer system will require DeKalb to identify and quantify overflows of untreated sewage and their causes; identify, delineate, assess and rehabilitate all priority areas within 8 ½ years; and  improve its management, operation and maintenance programs to prevent future overflows and respond to overflows when they occur.

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.