Environmental agencies fine DeKalb $294K for sewage spills

6:11 p.m Friday, June 23, 2017 Local
The Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, in operation since 1978, is being expanded as part of the county’s $1.35 billion project to upgrade water and sewer infrastructure. A groundbreaking took place Oct. 23, 2015, to celebrate the beginning of phase 2 of the project. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Environmental agencies fined DeKalb County $294,000 for repeatedly spilling raw sewage into public waters and underreporting the number of times that’s happened since 2012, the county announced Friday.

The county government will pay the fine using money collected from residents through their water and sewer bills.

With more than 100 spills in the past two years, DeKalb failed to adhere to a federal court order to drastically reduce its sewage overflows, according to a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division dated Tuesday. DeKalb is in the middle of a decade-long, $1.35 billion infrastructure project to upgrade its water and sewer system.

County officials have anticipated the possibility DeKalb would be penalized since discovering last year the number of sewage spills hadn’t been accurately reported.

The largest part of the fine, $147,500, is a punishment for the county’s failure to report 48 sewage spills from 2012 to 2016.

When county officials discovered the problem last year, they fired a Department of Watershed Management manager and pledged to correct the record.

The penalty is meant to “ensure the county continues to make progress toward bringing its sewer system into compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act,” said EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young in a statement.

DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond said in a statement Friday the fine is an “amicable resolution.”

“The DeKalb County government has undertaken an aggressive sewer cleaning program aimed at the most congested lines based on age, repeat overflows and known maintenance problems,” Thurmond said.

The county wanted to avoid sanctions by correcting its problems.

DeKalb disclosed the underreporting issue, reviewed years of records, cooperated with environmental regulators, retrained employees and conducted an internal investigation, according to a report from November.

“While we recognize this situation could have been avoided, we believe that county’s forthright approach to self-correcting provides adequate justification for EPA and EPD not to pursue additional enforcement,” the report said, summarizing the county’s corrective actions.

The agencies’ letter makes note of the county’s efforts and imposes lower fines than the maximum.

Besides the penalty for underreporting spills, the county also will pay $49,000 for spills in 2015, $63,500 for spills in 2016, $34,000 for the spills that weren’t previously documented.