DeKalb County’s crippling water main break last week marked the latest large-scale failure of metro Atlanta’s fragile infrastructure, while amplifying a new chapter of turmoil in an agency that’s been at the center of a series of scandals for more than a decade.
The break in an underground pipe off Buford Highway upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people Wednesday, compromising the water supply stretching from Decatur to Perimeter Mall. Doctors couldn’t perform surgeries. Students couldn’t go to school. Businesses hemorrhaged revenue as employees went home and restaurants shut their doors.
But even as the DeKalb Watershed Management Department scrambled to return service, an unrelated drama was unfolding behind the scenes. The department’s top leader — an engineer who stepped down two days before — lodged explosive allegations against top county officials in his resignation letter, accusing them of blocking him from carrying out his duty to protect residents from water pollution.
The accusations, detailed in documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, raise questions about whether the state’s fourth-largest county has the will to fix the dysfunctional department and the county’s never-ending water and sewer problems.
The documents reveal that as DeKalb last year was weathering a spike in reported sewage spills, the county sidelined Watershed Director Scott Towler. For months, he had been raising alarms about the county’s sewer capacity problems and about what he saw as violations of a court-ordered federal consent decree requiring $700 million in repairs.
Towler also suggested on at least one occasion that his bosses were trying to divert Watershed money to use it as a “slush fund.”
He complained both to and about his non-engineer supervisor, Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Infrastructure Ted Rhinehart. He also said he complained to DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond.
Towler also talked with a commissioner and the county ethics office, and he filed complaints with environmental regulators. In response, he said, he suffered retaliation and was cut out of meetings and key decisions.
“I cannot be accountable for a process that lacks transparency and speaks of back office deals,” Towler told Rhinehart by email in July, later adding, “(Watershed) cannot continue to operate in an environment of non-transparency and intimidation.”
Towler had been the department’s fourth leader over the past five years.
Rhinehart did not respond to an interview request.
Thurmond responded to Towler’s scorching resignation letter by calling him a “disgruntled employee” who has made “a series of slanderous, baseless accusations against county leadership.”
Towler declined to speak to the AJC for this story, referring a reporter to his attorney, who did not return phone calls.
But the newspaper obtained a cache of emails this week that shed light on Towler’s specific allegations.
“I was disappointed,” Towler told Rhinehart in the July email, “when I realized that my refusal to participate in the previous administration’s efforts to use (Watershed) funds as a ‘slush fund’ for non-watershed activities was going to affect my relationship with the new administration under Michael Thurmond.
“In my very first meeting with Thurmond, he told me that (the preceding, interim CEO) Lee May warned him that I was ‘not loyal,’ which was shocking to me because I am not sure what loyalty is expected of me as a public employee other than to do my job and follow the law.”
In other emails Towler complained that Rhinehart undermined his leadership, reduced accountability and caused chaos in the agency. In one July email to Rhinehart, Towler accused him of rewriting a proposed water-related ordinance in “an apparent attempt to pander” to the Atlanta Apartment Association.
More recently, Towler objected to Rhinehart re-hiring an engineering manager who had resigned in lieu of termination earlier in Towler’s tenure. Before she quit, Towler wrote her up for substandard work quality, unbecoming conduct and insubordination.
“Objection noted but overruled per the chain of command,” Rhinehart told human resources in February.
In an interview with the AJC, Thurmond would not directly address specific allegations Towler made.
Thurmond said he inherited an agency plagued by years of scandal and infighting.
When he took office in January 2017, Thurmond said he set out to first understand what the consent decree required and how to go about meeting its time lines. So he turned to Rhinehart, a longtime government hand who had helped negotiate the decree in 2010 but had resigned in 2013 as the department cratered under a scandal that led to former CEO Burrell Ellis’ downfall.
“He helped me better understand not the just the consent decree, but the environment that surrounded the consent decree and ultimately the lack of progress made,” Thurmond said.
Thurmond said he has made strides to restore the county’s reputation with both the public and government regulators. The county has cleaned up 220 miles of sewers, removed 5.1 tons of debris from easements and inspected 1,821 stream crossings, among other fixes, the CEO said. A key first step, he said, was apologizing to federal and state regulators for the county’s past mismanagement of the water and sewer system.
“I admitted all the mistakes, all the missteps, all the failures that have occurred with DeKalb County from 2011 until the day we were sitting there in the office,” Thurmond said.
The water main break appears to be a separate issue. It may have been caused by failure of a nearby storm sewer pipe outside of the county’s responsibility, DeKalb officials said.
‘Busy pointing fingers’
Members of a DeKalb citizens’ watershed advisory panel have their own frustrations about the direction the county has taken to address its chronic water system problems.
The group feels cut off from information critical to performing their advisory function and says county leaders have become unresponsive to their questions.
“You’ve got a citizens’ advisory group being kept in the dark,” said John Miller, an Oak Grove resident who co-chairs the Watershed Capital Improvement Program Advisory Group. “I’ve got a problem with that.”
In February, the group listed a host of “major concerns” in its monthly update to the DeKalb Commission, including the need for better communication with the public when a sewage spill occurs.
Members also expressed concern about the deep divisions and tension between county leaders and Watershed officials.
Miller, a retired civil engineer who has been the group’s co-chair since it was created in 2011, said the department had been “a clown car and from time to time the wheels would come off,” Miller said, noting a host of scandals and the agency’s revolving door of leadership.
Towler changed that when he took the helm in fall 2015, Miller said. Towler brought transparency.
He provided the advisory board with information and allowed it to perform its oversight function. For example, when Towler discovered the county had been underreporting sewage spills, he came before the board to report about the problem, as well as going to federal officials.
Yet the board saw Towler being marginalized at public meetings in the past year after he raised concerns about certain development projects and their impact on the county’s ability to handle the increased sewage load.
Miller said the county’s efforts last week to paint Towler as a “disgruntled employee” don’t jibe with reality.
“If that’s the official position of the county, then the official position is a flat lie,” Miller said. “He was and is committed to the safety and health of the people of DeKalb County, and he’s committed to following the law.”
The “Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills” Facebook group also lit up with grievances as news of Towler’s letter circulated Wednesday, just as residents’ taps nearly went dry. For some, Towler’s allegations confirmed their deepest cynicism: that despite the goodwill toward CEO Thurmond — a leader widely viewed as DeKalb’s reformer-in-chief — his 14-month tenure has done little to resolve issues in one of the county’s most far-reaching and troubled departments.
A special grand jury report released in 2013 found widespread corruption in Watershed going back to at leasts 2006 and recommended charges against several top officials. Later, an inspector pleaded guilty to shaking down restaurant owners, several employees were convicted of collecting overtime for hours they didn’t work, and a contractor bungled work after providing a fraudulent bond.
“The mismanagement of the water and sewer utility over the 20 years I’ve lived in Brookhaven has now built up such a head of steam that I don’t know how we can stop the freight train of problems,” Gaye Stathis wrote in a reply to group members. “The elected officials are all busy pointing fingers at each other while the CEO is careful to remind people that he didn’t create any of these problems (yet he signed on to run the county).”
Another reply came from Star McKenzie, who like Stathis is a member of a citizens advisory group that was created to provide recommendations on correcting water billing issues in DeKalb. Both have criticized county leaders for failing to implement change.
“I have lived in this county my entire life,” McKenzie wrote. “I want to raise my kids here. But, hearing Towler’s allegations today made me doubt whether this is where I want to live. This county is literally dripping in sewage on every level imaginable.”
A purist versus the administration
The records obtained by the AJC show that a major source of contention between Towler and his bosses was how many new sewer hookups the county could handle in certain areas, and who had the authority to sign off on them. Towler and the county’s lawyers disagreed on the fine points of the consent agreement with EPA, and how to use a model sewer capacity policy drafted by consultant CH2M Hill.
While the attorneys argued that the policy relied on incomplete data and didn’t go into effect until December, Towler wanted to base decisions on it right away, according to Commissioner Jeff Rader.
“There are good arguments on either side,” Rader said. “What is the use and utility of a model that is inaccurate in its data set and uncalibrated so that it doesn’t accurately predict overflows?”
Commissioner Nancy Jester, who the emails show was in regular communication with Towler, said his being iced out of decision-making raised alarms for her.
“I’m not an engineer, but numbers tell stories,” Jester said. “If we’re fixing the system, wouldn’t an artifact of the fixing be that you have less sewer spills, not more? To me, this defies logic, and science and common sense.”
DeKalb had more than 200 sewage spills and overflows in 2017, according to a county report.
Jester said the Watershed director also clashed over whether the consent decree required new sewer connections to be authorized by a licensed engineer.
Towler took that and other issues to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in October. “I have continued to address these inconsistencies and violations of the Consent Decree,” he reported to Andy Castro of EPA’s criminal investigation division, “however, only (to) receive continued resistance from the County. I have no further recourse with the County and am obligated to elevate my claims to your office.”
Jester said the EPA told DeKalb that engineers’ signatures would be required after Dec. 20, the deadline under the consent decree for certain policies to be adopted.
Since then, Jester said some developers have told her they couldn’t get approval from Towler or engineers on his staff.
“We have a de facto moratorium on, even though they won’t tell anybody that,” Jester said. “If Amazon wanted to put a shovel in the ground at the GM plant, the answer would be, well, we haven’t worked this sewer thing out yet. Sorry.”
The EPA declined to comment for this story, saying it doesn’t talk about enforcement matters.
Another alarm sounded
Earlier last week, before the water main break and Towler’s resignation, one of the county’s top clean water watchdogs publicly called for an EPA investigation of DeKalb for failing to stay on track with the federal agreement.
The South River Watershed Alliance announced the request in its monthly email newsletter sent Monday morning. In a letter to the EPA dated Feb. 21, the group outlined a series of allegations that amount to the county being woefully behind on its plan to fix the sewage system by June 2020. One of the alliance’s chief complaints is that DeKalb has failed to ensure the system can keep up with rapid commercial and residential growth.
Stretches of the county’s sewage system are more than a half century old, and weekly there are signs it is in peril, said Jacqueline Echols, the alliance’s president, who wrote the letter.
Last year’s spills, she said, are the highest number since the consent decree was signed. So far this year, she said, there have been almost 40 spills.
“It’s getting worse, not better,” she said. “They are not addressing the problem.”
CEO Thurmond said EPA knows about the request to extend some of the deadlines, and the agency is fully aware of DeKalb’s plan to comply with the agreement.
But he said he understands activists’ concerns. “It is a process, not an event,” the CEO said. “We are moving in the right direction.”