Millions of gallons of raw sewage gushed from a broken pipe in Brookhaven for nine straight days this month, pouring dangerous pollutants into Nancy Creek, before workers finally put a stop to DeKalb County’s largest spill in more than a decade.
The county government announced Tuesday that workers have stanched the 3.9 million gallon spill, but residents should avoid the creek area near Peachtree Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads. Sewage spills spread e. coli bacteria, which can cause fever, diarrhea and vomiting.
The huge spill comes as DeKalb is struggling to deal with repeated sewer pipe breaks and their environmental impact, a problem that’s threatening to limit business growth. The county has already paid $924,000 in fines to state and federal environmental regulatory agencies since 2011, and is on pace for a sharp increase in spills this year.
Commissioner Nancy Jester, who represents the north DeKalb area, said the latest spill could have been prevented.
“It wouldn’t have happened if we were more professionally managing our system all along,” she said.
Scott Towler, the county’s watershed director, said this is the largest spill in DeKalb since 2006. The county will monitor the stream for the next year, he said.
Many of the county’s 111 spills through the first six months of this year were caused by heavy rainfall and clogs created when residents dump grease in their sinks. But the county reported that the spill near Nancy Creek occurred because of soil erosion of a creek bank supporting a 10-inch sewer line, which collapsed.
After the city of Atlanta reported high bacteria counts in the creek Aug. 8, it took a team of four inspectors until Thursday to locate the source of the spill, which was difficult to find near a tributary stream in the woods. County workers near the spill site Tuesday were preparing to install a replacement 12-inch line.
“I’m just in awe at the size of this. This is the biggest one I’ve come across,” said John Miller, co-chairman of a citizen advisory committee overseeing the county’s watershed infrastructure. “We’re going to keep having spills until we do more fixes.”
He said DeKalb should more quickly replace pipes, upgrade treatment plants and improve the sewer system’s ability to handle the county’s waste.
DeKalb reached an agreement with the federal government seven years ago to improve its sewer system, but the county is behind schedule.
“Anytime you have a spill, you have to be concerned about things like e. coli and other bacteria,” said Nadine Rivers-Johnson, the citizen committee’s co-chairwoman. “It’s a big problem. Everybody is trying to do what they can to get a handle on this problem and make it a priority.”
DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond issued an emergency order to inspect all pipes in the Nancy Creek area to prevent future spills. County employees will also inspect hundreds of miles of pipes parallel to creeks and tributaries that haven’t been routinely monitored.
“The preservation of our waterways is critical to sustaining a high quality of life in DeKalb County,” Thurmond said in a statement. “It is imperative that we ensure our infrastructure is properly maintained and inspected on a regular basis to ensure the protection of our creeks, tributaries and ecosystem as a whole.”
Thurmond said last month that, despite frequent sewage spills, the county’s sewer lines can handle more new construction than previously thought. He said engineering analyses indicate that the county can accommodate development, though businesses are being evaluated by the county before receiving permission to open. In the future, some businesses could be required to build holding tanks for excess sewage.