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Environmentalists say county needs to address grease in pipes

Written By: Andrew Cauthen - 9/27/11 - DeKalb News

The environmental group monitoring DeKalb County’s watershed problems does not believe the county is doing enough to address the problem of grease in sewage pipes.

“They do a little bit of public outreach in schools and at community association meetings when they can get an invitation,” said Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA).

In a letter to Lisa Jackson, an administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the SRWA stated that the “language in the consent decree fails to accurately depict the magnitude of the county’s fats, oils and grease (FOG) problem and that the proposed solution is inadequate.”

“The consent decree is virtually silent on when and how FOG will be reduced in DeKalb County,” the letter states.

Last year, in a proposed consent decree with the EPA, the county agreed to pay a $453,000 penalty for excessive sewage spills. Since 2006, there have been approximately 1,000 county sewer spills. So far this year alone, there have been more than 150 spills.

In the consent decree, the county also agreed to implement a $600,000 stream cleanup project, focusing on debris removal from parts of the South River, South Fork Peachtree Creek and Snapfinger Creek.

The proposed consent decree is a resolution of a joint federal and state complaint filed against the county for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act. A federal judge has yet to accept the consent decree.

To reduce the FOG problem, the SRWA believes county officials should identify the hot spots in the county and launch an aggressive outreach efforts in those areas, Echols said.

“You have to do something different when you see what you’re doing isn’t working,” Echols said. “The solution to FOG is a lot of public education. There is no silver bullet.”

The SRWA wants DeKalb County to be held accountable in the consent decree for improving the FOG problem.

“The emphasis in the consent decree does not come close to narrowing the problem,” Echols said. “If it’s not in the consent decree, it won’t get done.”

“It’s such a no-brainer to go after the FOG problem,” Echols said.

The problem with grease in the sewer system is that it is an “impediment to the easy travel of the sewage,” said Joe Basista, the county’s watershed department director. Approximately 70 percent of the county’s sewage spills are caused by FOG.

“That’s why we’re concerned about FOG,” Basista said.

Once grease is in the pipes, there are two things that happen.

Most gets to the sewage system where it is broken down, Basista said. “It’s the grease that doesn’t get to our treatment facility that’s the problem.”

Basista said some spills can be prevented by increasing the cleaning of the sewer system.

“We have begun to clean the system more regularly,” Basista said. “That’s a requirement of the consent decree.”

“Our efforts on FOG will only increase as we get into the consent decree,” Basista said. “The consent decree is going to require us to be proactive.”

One way the county addresses the FOG problem is through an ordinance that requires all food service establishments to maintain grease interceptors to prevent fats from entering the sewer system.

County FOG compliance inspectors routinely inspect the approximately 2,000 food service establishments, checking their permits and inspecting the grease traps. The inspectors also audit the restaurants’ records for the grease interceptors to ensure regular maintenance and disposal.

Another way the county attacks the FOG problem is through a public education campaign.

“The best way to solve FOG is to not allow it in the sewer system,” Basista said. “We encourage people not to pour grease down the drain.”

The watershed department spreads its anti-FOG message through newspaper, radio and movie theater advertisements. Additionally representatives from the department speak at community meetings and schools.

“We tell students, ‘Go home; talk to your parents; don’t put grease down the drain,’” Basista said.

Sanitary Sewer Spills in DeKalb County, Ga, 2011
This map shows the 2011 sewer spills for DeKalb County which were self-reported to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Data compiled by Andrew Cauthen, The Champion,