A full year after it was announced, a federal judge has signed a consent decree in which DeKalb County agreed to pay a $453,000 penalty for excessive sewage spills.
In the consent decree, signed by U.S. District Judge William S. Duffey Jr. on Dec. 20, the county agreed to pay the penalty to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Environmental Protection Division. The fine was paid earlier this month, according to Joe Basista, the county’s director of watershed management.
The approval of the decree is “good news,” Basista said.
“The consent decree is signed [and] we have the capital,” Basista said. “Things are good.”
In his official opinion and order in the case, Judge Duffey said, “This is an important and complex issue involving significant matters of public interest and concern.”
“This consent decree establishes a reasonable, viable framework for enacting a necessary plan of remediation in DeKalb County,” Duffey stated. “It offers benefits … to the public, the citizens of DeKalb County, and Georgia. The decree is fair, reasonable, lawful and in accord with public policy and the public interest.”
DeKalb County has 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.
Basista said the consent decree is full of milestones that the county is expected to meet in the first six to 24 months of the decree.
“We have been advancing the consent decree, doing the things that we could,” Basista said. “We weren’t going to sit around and wait until the consent decree was signed.”
Some of those actions include physically surveying the county’s sewer system. Approximately 60 percent of the system has already been examined and Basista said the survey will be fully complete with in the next three years.
The county has also begun a computerized hydrological model of the system and has performed some cleaning and inspections, Basista said.
The consent agreement 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. The county had 871 sewage overflows from 2006-10.
In 2011, there were 187 sanitary sewer overflows, the highest number since 2006 when the number was 256.
Of the spills last year, 136 (73 percent) were caused by grease blockages in sewer pipes.
The amount of sewage that flowed into local creeks and rivers topped 1.69 million gallons, according to documents from the county’s Department of Watershed Management.
“The number of spills has varied over the years,” Basista said. “But they’re in the same magnitude, in the same severity.”
Basista said the number of sewer spills is not expected to decrease until the county’s $1.345 billion watershed capital improvement project gets underway.
“We didn’t have the money to invest,” Basista said.
In December, the Board of Commissioners approved a $381 million water and sewer bond and the county plans to secure a $390 million bond later this year as part of several anticipated bonds during the watershed improvement process.
The bonds will be repaid by increases in the county’s water and sewer rates. An 11-percent rate went into effect this month and the rate will increase in 2013 and 2014 by 11 percent, according to a plan adopted by the board of commissioners.
“We now have the ability to do more capital things,” Basista said.
Now that funding is in place, the county will undertake a “robust cleaning and inspection of the system” Basista said. It will cost approximately $10 million to $15 million per mile to clean the system.
“If we can get the system cleaned, I know the number of spills will go down,” Basista said.