Soon after Mercy Care opened a health clinic serving the poor and uninsured in Chamblee, a government official sounded the alarm: The clinic could lead to more sewage spills and put DeKalb County in violation of federal law.
DeKalb Department of Watershed Management Director Scott Towler wrote in a June 1 email to his boss that Mercy Care was allowed to start business even though the county hadn’t required a way to mitigate the risk that sewage from the clinic would pollute public waters.
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“The decision of DeKalb County senior officials to turn a blind eye to new development projects that refuse to comply with DWM procedure places DWM in an untenable position,” Towler wrote to DeKalb Deputy Chief Operations Officer Ted Rhinehart in an email obtained by Channel 2 Action News through an open records request.
The situation involving Mercy Care is the latest example of confusion over the ability of DeKalb’s sewer system to handle additional business growth. While the county has approved dozens of new developments over the last year, it has at times required businesses to install expensive sewage holding tanks that reduce the chance of a sewer spill during heavy rains.
Towler wrote that he had no choice but to notify state and federal environmental agencies, which recently fined the county nearly $300,000 for unrelated previous sewage spills.
A major sewage spill occurred near Mercy Care on June 28, dumping 182,000 gallons near Nancy Creek, according to county documents. It’s unclear whether the clinic was a cause or contributor to the spill.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment Monday on DeKalb’s compliance.
Diana Lewis, a spokeswoman for the clinic, said a DeKalb employee gave Mercy Care permission in February to begin treating patients without having to install a $500,000 holding tank.
She said the county had planned to build a tank at a nearby park, without any added expense or delay for Mercy Care, which opened April 18 and provides primary care, family and pediatric services.
“Since a solution had been found, Mercy Care confirmed twice in writing to county officials it was moving forward with completing the project unless there was something else we needed to do,” according to a statement posted on Mercy Care’s website. “… We now know the solution DeKalb County offered did not materialize, and we are working with them on a new solution.”
DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond, who took office in January, said he will institute policies and procedures to ensure the kind of confusion around Mercy Care doesn’t happen again. He said he’s reviewing whether Mercy Care should have been given the go-ahead.
“Mercy Care alleges that they received permission. Our people in Watershed Management contradict that. We’re trying to resolve it,” Thurmond said. “There should have been a series of documented steps and sign-offs.”
He said the county is improving the accuracy of its sewer capacity assessment modeling in the coming months. He said it’s possible that adequate capacity already exists at the Mercy Care site, located near the Chamblee MARTA station.
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