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DeKalb to spend more than $1.34 billion to fix water, sewer woes

Written By: Jennifer Ffrench - 12/18/10 - Cross Roads News

The aging Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant in Decatur will be improved as part of the $1.34 billion Capital Improvement Plan approved by the DeKalb Board of Commissioners.

Tack another $1.05 million to DeKalb County's growing billion dollar price tag to fix its water woes.

In addition to the $1.34 billion plan approved by the DeKalb Board of Commissioners on Dec. 14 to overhaul its water and sewer systems, the county now has to pay a civil penalty of $453,000; and $600,000 to clean up segments of the South River, South Fork Peachtree Creek, and Snapfinger Creek.

The penalty and clean up cost comes with a Consent Decree signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for fouling the state’s waters in violation of the Federal Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act.

Included in the $1.34 billion Capital Improvement Plan approved by the Board of Commissioners are $700 million of repairs to the county's sewer system to reduce spills and overflows.

-The Capital Improvement Plan will increase water rates for residents by 11 percent annually between 2012 and 2014.

-The $453,000 civil penalty will be split equally between the EPA and the EPD and must be paid within 30 days.

-The river cleanup will focus on the removal of trash and debris from the river and creeks. The public will have input into which segments will be cleaned.

The consent decree ­– announced Dec. 13 by the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA – comes in the wake of 256 reported sanitary spills in 2006 and an EPA audit of the county’s management, operations and maintenance of DeKalb’s wastewater collection and transmission system in March 2007.

In its announcement Monday, the EPA said overflows pose a significant threat to public health because raw sewage can have high concentrations of bacteria from fecal contamination as well as pathogens and viruses.  

“Ultimately, this will benefit the local community and improve water quality in the Upper Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee watersheds,” said Stan Meiburg, the EPA’s Southeastern office deputy regional administrator.

He said that sewage overflows are a significant problem in the Southeast because of inadequate and aging infrastructure.

DeKalb County operates more than 2,600 miles of sewer pipes, and more than 50 percent of them are 25 to 50 years old.

“This agreement demonstrates DeKalb County’s commitment to address longstanding sewage problems,” Meiburg said. “Ultimately, this will benefit the local community and improve water quality in the Upper Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee watersheds.”

DeKalb and the federal agencies began the negotiations in January 2009 but kept them secret.

As recently as Dec. 4, county officials denied during a question-and-answer session at the DeKalb Legislative Meeting at Chapel Hill Middle School that they were under any EPA mandate to make the repairs.

Ted Rhinehart, the county’s infrastructure manager, said Monday that the negotiation had to be kept confidential.

“Up until the point today where the EPD signed the document that says we agree with this settlement and filed it with the court, it’s still a matter of pending litigation,” he said. “That is why we had to keep it confidential.”

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis said that while they were not allowed to talk about the consent decree before it was agreed upon, the DeKalb Board of Commissioners was kept briefed during the entire negotiation progress.

“And we did share with the public that we were federally mandated to go ahead and make these upgrades at this time,” he said.

The settlement requires the county to develop and implement a comprehensive program to “ensure effective capacity, management, operations and maintenance” of its water system. It also begins a 30-day public comment period. Citizens have until Jan. 12 to tell the EPA what they think of the consent decree.

Their comments will be included before a U.S. District Court judge signs off on it.

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Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, said the settlement will mean a healthier, safer environment for communities in DeKalb County.

“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,” he said.

Dr. Francis Kung’u, DeKalb’s Watershed director, said the $600,000 for the river cleanup is not part of the $1.34 billion Capital Improvement Plan but will come from his department’s Supplement Environment Project that is also funded through the water rate adjustments.

Kung’u said the county would have paid a bigger fine if it had not agreed to do the clean up of the river and creeks.

Ellis said the consent decree formalizes implementation of the county’s sewer programs and improvements, which are in the five-year Capital Improvement Plan.

“These programs and improvements will ensure long-term protection of public health and the environment, particularly with respect to the rivers and streams in DeKalb County,” he said.

Rhinehart said that agreement gives the county eight and half years to make the critical investments to address sewer spills, to ensure that all the wastewater is properly captured and treated at the plants, to protect our rivers and streams, and rehabilitate its system.

“We may get done earlier, hopefully, but at least we have that time if necessary to ensure that everything gets done well within budget and to federal and state satisfaction,” he said.