Amid another big sewage spill, DeKalb CEO orders emergency inspections

Amid a second major sewage spill in a matter of days, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond has ordered emergency inspections of every pipe that crosses any creek in any part of the county.

He also called for the Department of Watershed Management to “implement a plan of regular inspections of sewer lines.”

“We’re going to be proactive and do what’s necessary to reduce the probability of an incident such as the one here,” Thurmond said during a Friday afternoon press conference at the site of the Lithonia spill. “We recognize that we are going to be much more conscientious going forward in terms of inspections, maintenance and repair.”

The latest spill — first reported Wednesday and likely to continue through most of the weekend — was at Snapfinger Creek near Lithonia. Though a final estimate won’t be available until the spill is stopped, officials said Friday it could compare in volume to the nine-day spill stopped earlier in the week — a massive incident near Brookhaven that ultimately dumped nearly 3.9 million gallons of raw sewage into a nearby creek.

DeKalb reported 111 spills through the first half of 2017. It had 135 in all of 2016.

DeKalb’s sewage spill problems have now lasted for years, and the possiblity of new fines from the Environmental Protection Division is mounting. As are residents’ frustrations.

Frances Sylvester lives on Eagle’s Beek Circle, just around the corner from the most recent Snapfinger Creek spill. She heard the sound of heavy machinery all night as Thursday turned to Friday, and the lights shone through her bedroom window, too. She’d first detected the odor from the spill days earlier, she said.

As she spoke Friday morning from the small front porch of her home, dozens of workers still worked feverishly to bring everything under control.

“I guess a lot of us would not have moved in this vicinity had we known then what we know now,” Sylvester said.

A ‘major’ spill

The new Snapfinger Creek spill, which county officials said is not affecting drinking water, is believed to have been triggered by a tree growing out of a “concrete junction box where two pipes converge.”

“The location of the pipe, along with the extent of the deterioration, is making containment difficult,” the county’s Friday afternoon news release said. The pipe and creekbed are several feet downhill.

The site is just north of the county’s Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant — and more than 20 miles south of where, earlier this week, DeKalb County officials finally stopped a separate spill after it dumped nearly 4 million gallons of sewage into another local creek.

The earlier spill, stopped on Tuesday after more than a week, happened at Nancy Creek near Peachtree Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads in Brookhaven. The worst such incident in DeKalb County in more than a decade, that spill was blamed on soil erosion on a creek bank supporting a 10-inch sewer line, which collapsed.

Both of this week’s incidents come about a month after Thurmond reported that the county’s sewer system problems might have been exaggerated, that a new independent analysis discovered the system could handle more new construction than previously thought.

‘Too soon to speculate’

At the Snapfinger Creek spill site, crews were using heavy machinery Friday to install a temporary pipe to bypass the broken section. Permanent repairs wouldn’t begin until the spill was contained, officials said.

Deputy Director of Operations Reginald Willis said workers hope repairs will be done before “the end of the weekend.” Residents were urged to avoid the spill site and keep their pets away from the creek. Sewage spills spread e. coli bacteria, which can cause fever, diarrhea and vomiting.

DeKalb has been under a federal court order to upgrade its sewer system since 2011. Over that time, the county has already paid $924,000 in related fines to state and federal environmental regulatory agencies. Most recently, it was ordered to pay $294,000 in fines for spills from 2015 and 2016, as well as for spills that hadn’t been reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Georgia EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said Friday it was “too soon to speculate” on new fines from the DeKalb’s most recent spills.

“Although the consent decree does call for stipulated penalties,” he wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In addition to ordering the county’s Department of Watershed Management to evaluate each of the county’s creek-crossing pipes and to implement regular inspections elsewhere, Thurmond, the CEO, said he also instructed them specifically to investigate all pipes along Snapfinger Creek.

Color Frances Sylvester, the woman who lives next to the latest spill on that waterway, unimpressed.

“Had they done the job better (originally),” she said, “they would not have had this problem.”


The AJC's Tyler Estep keeps you updated on the latest happenings in Gwinnett County government and politics. You'll find more on, including these stories:

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