DeKalb groups: EPA’s sewer mandate is weak

January 21, 2011 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The federal Environment Protection Agency’s mandate for DeKalb County to improve its sewer system is a “slap on the wrist” with little oversight and weak penalties, DeKalb residents said.

On Wednesday, six DeKalb environmental groups asked the EPA to issue stricter penalties for DeKalb’s continued sewage spills, hoping added pressure from the EPA would guarantee speedier clean up of affected rivers and streams.

In December, the EPA issued a consent decree, mandating DeKalb upgrade its sewer system after reporting more than 800 raw sewage spills in five years. The decree, which DeKalb spent 14 months negotiating with the federal government, also includes 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.

Since then, the county commission has authorized $1.35 billion in upgrades to its sewer system, which will be paid for by increases in residents’ water and sewer bills.

However, the county has not announced any timeline or clean-up plans for the spills, which continue to occur daily, residents said.

“My concern is that taxpayers are having to foot that huge bill in increased water rates. I feel there needs to be more accountability,” said Gil Turman, president of the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition. “We’re in this because of a lack of accountability. For 20 years, the county has been negligent and having sewage spills so regularly. And now they just get a slap on the wrist.”

Turman’s coalition, along with the DeKalb Soil and Water Conservation District, the Miners Creek Circle Civic Association, the Metropolitan Atlanta Urban Watershed Institute, the Newly Organized Citizens Requesting Aquifer Protection and the South River Watershed Alliance, submitted a 12-page letter Wednesday to the federal government demanding stricter oversight. Wednesday was the deadline for the public comment period.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said her agency and the U.S. Department of Justice will evaluate all of the comments and then make a decision as to whether to issue tougher penalties.

Ted Rhinehart, DeKalb’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure, said the county had not reviewed the residents’ comments, but said DeKalb believes the decree is “fair, reasonable and in the public interest.”

Federal law allows the EPA to charge the county up to $37,500 a day for spills, but the decree only says fines of up to $500 can be charged per spill.

“It doesn’t seem like they would have much incentive if they are not complying,” GreenLaw attorney David Deganian told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Greenlaw, an Atlanta-based environmental legal group, drafted the residents’ letter.

Residents said they worry DeKalb could end up like Atlanta, which signed a consent decree in 1998 committing to $4 billion in water upgrades, but has been given several extensions.

“This is a problem that has gone on for decades. As we have learned from the City of Atlanta, there are no simple solutions and significant oversight is very important,” said Justine Thompson, GreenLaw’s executive director. “We don’t think there are adequate assurances that the consent order terms will be met.”

DeKalb officials said they have been trying to avoid the high costs and legal battles that plagued Atlanta by moving forward with the work.

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