DeKalb pays $275K to settle lawsuits over water and sewer spills

At least eight times since October 2015, raw sewage from DeKalb County’s decrepit sewer system has spilled into the grassy, well-manicured backyard of Joel and Kimberly Easley.

The persistent problem created health hazards, the Easleys argued in a lawsuit, and it reduced the value of their home in Decatur’s Oakhurt neighborhood.

This week, the county government agreed to pay the couple $150,000 to settle their lawsuit.

Besides the payment to the Easleys, the DeKalb Board of Commissioners also voted Tuesday to approve a $125,000 settlement with James Brown and Stephen Golden, two neighbors who said they endured similar problems when a water pipe leak turned their Decatur-area properties into “wetlands.”

The settlements are the latest cost in the county’s ongoing, $1.35 billion effort to repair its aging and spill-prone water and sewage system. DeKalb is under a federal court order requiring the county to upgrade its infrastructure and prevent sewage spills.

“Our government is working to address capacity issues in our sewer system and to continue to reduce sanitary sewer overflows,” said DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond in a statement. “With 60 percent of sanitary sewer overflows in DeKalb county caused by fats, oils and grease being poured down sink drains, residents and businesses also play an important partnership role.”

The number of sewage spills in DeKalb has gradually declined over the last five years, from 159 in 2012 to 135 last year. In all, the county reported 703 spills during that time.

DeKalb officials acknowledged last year it under-reported the number of sewage spills to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. An assistant watershed director was fired and the county corrected the record, but it could still face fines.

Meanwhile, the county still hasn’t fully repaired the sewage spill problems at the Easleys property, though it plans to do so. The Easleys, who recently moved to California, sold their Oakhurst home after disclosing the sewage issues to the new buyers.

“The county made no effort to investigate the cause of the sewage overflows,” according to the Easleys’ lawsuit, filed Jan. 23. “The county refused to properly treat the contaminated areas and left fecal excrement and solid waste for plaintiffs to clean up.”

The water flooding problems at issue in the lawsuit by Brown and Golden were corrected in October 2014, when the county repaired a 64-inch water main, according to their lawsuit.

Their attorney, Martin Shelton, said the settlement was “satisfactory” but declined to comment further, citing confidentiality provisions of the settlement.

DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon, the board’s presiding officer, said the county is working hard to fix its sewage problems. She said the settlements resolve potentially expensive litigation with residents who had legitimate complaints.

“Going to court is always a gamble. If we lost, it would have been a whole lot more money,” Gannon said.

The county government is taking several steps to improve the reliability and capacity of its sewer system.

The DeKalb Commission approved two contracts worth a combined $35.4 million this month to clean major trunk lines and repair infrastructure in the Decatur and Avondale Estates area.

In addition, the county is continuing to evaluate wastewater collection system weaknesses and testing for problems that can lead to spills.

“We’re ready to move on,” said Joel Easley. “We’re happy to see the county is working to resolve any ongoing issues.”

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