The proposed agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and DeKalb County over excessive sewage spills is weak, ineffective and should be withdrawn or modified. That is what a group of six community organizations said last week in a 12-page comment made to the U.S. District Court for the northern district of Georgia, which is reviewing the consent decree.
“The consent decree does not go far enough to ensure that the goal of eliminating sewer spills is met in a reasonable time frame,” said attorney David Deganian of Greenlaw, a group of attorneys dedicated to preventing pollution by providing legal and technical assistance to environmental organizations and community groups throughout Georgia.
“EPA gives the state and the county too much control over the task of protecting the community from further spills,” Deganian said. “That approach hasn’t worked for decades; why would it work now?”
The comment from Greenlaw is made on behalf of the DeKalb Soil and Water Conservation District, Miners Creek Circle Civic Association, the Metropolitan Atlanta Urban Watershed Institute, Newly Organized Citizens Requesting Aquifer Protection (NOCRAP), the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition and the South River Watershed Alliance.
In the consent decree, which was made public in December, DeKalb County agreed to pay a $453,000 penalty from the EPA for excessive sewage spills. Since 2006, there have more than 840 sewer spills in the county.
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.
The proposed 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 penalty will be split between the United States and the state of Georgia.
Last month, the county’s Board of Commissioners voted to raise water and sewer rates by 11 percent each year for three years beginning in 2012 to fund a $1.345 billion project to fix the county’s aging water and sewer system. The system serves more than 730,000 people and 20,000 businesses. It has approximately 5,200 miles of water and sewer lines, one treatment facility for drinking water and two for waste water. Many of the pipes are 50 years old.
The public had 30 days to make comments about the agreement. That period ended Jan. 19. The comments will be reviewed by the EPA, Department of Justice and the U.S. District Court to determine if any changes to the decree are necessary, said Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the environmental and natural resources division of the DOJ.
The federal government will then make a motion in court to enter into the consent agreement. There is no specific time frame for the completion of this process, Hornbuckle said.
Gil Turman, president of the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition, said the goal is not to lower the water and sewer rates. Instead, Turman wants more accountability from the county.
“DeKalb County has been negligent for the past 20 years,” Turman said. “The EPA is giving the county leeway and flexibility. That’s why we got into trouble in the first place.”
Residents need to be assured that the money is being spent appropriately. And since the EPA is asking the county to make changes, the EPA should monitor them, Turman said.
In addition to requesting that the EPA require the county to complete major tasks on a detailed schedule and increase penalties for future noncompliance, the comment requests that the county maintain a Web page that contains up-to-date records related to the consent decree and its ongoing implementation.