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DeKalb County’s sewage leaks: Federal judge fed up with EPA delays

By David Pendered

A federal judge is fed up with the EPA’s delays regarding the pending update to DeKalb County’s mandate to stop leaking untreated sewage into waterways. The judge on July 16 ordered a final report by mid August, or a full accounting of the delay.

A federal judge in Atlanta has ordered the EPA to submit its report, or explain the long delay, related to the proposed modification of DeKalb County’s federal consent decree related to the leaks of untreated sewage into waterways. Credit: Kelly Jordan

This deal has lain on the table since October 2020. The deal was expected to be signed early this year, because the content of the modified consent decree is said to be fairly standard.

The matter involves a purportedly routine modification of the federal consent decree that’s compelling DeKalb County to stop dumping untreated sewage into waterways. The decree was signed by the county, state and federal governments. The pending modification is awaiting EPA review of public comments, and takes effect when signed by the judge handling the case, U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg.

As an aside, this decree does not address raw sewage leaking into the South River, a major waterway in DeKalb County. Those leaks were not covered by the consent decree. The South River situation was identified in April as a “longstanding environmental injustice for south DeKalb neighborhoods and downstream communities” by American Rivers, a watchdog organization that listed the South River as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers of 2021.

For reasons the EPA hasn’t explained in court filings, EPA hasn’t completed its review of 39 public comments submitted on the proposed modification of the consent decree. The comments cover more than 300 pages. The EPA has submitted three papers in U.S. District Court in Atlanta saying that it’s work is not done and more time is needed.

The flow of untreated sewage into the South River is not regulated under DeKalb County’s federal consent decree. Here, river enthusiasts joined in South River Paddle’s 2019 excursion. Jackie Echols (center) serves as board chair of the South River Watershed Alliance. Credit: South River Watershed Alliance

Notice of its fourth delay was submitted on July 12. The EPA said it needs more time, in a status report submitted on its behalf by the federal Justice Department:

  • “The United States continues to evaluate these extensive comments. The Plaintiffs anticipate filing in the coming weeks a document informing the Court as to whether the Plaintiffs request that the Modification be approved and entered.”

Four days later, on July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg responded with an order of the type often described as “tersely worded.” Grimberg indicated that even if the EPA didn’t start looking at the submitted comments until after the extended period of public comment closed Dec. 4, 2020, the agency has had ample time to complete its work. Language in the order includes:

  • “The evaluation of these comments appears to be taking an inordinate amount of time. Even assuming that the United States did not begin its review process until the extended public comment period entirely closed on December 4, the United States has still had over 32 weeks to review 39 comments.”

U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg. Credit: wikipedia.org

At this point, Grimberg set a deadline, and specified the consequences of missing the deadline:

  • “Given this protracted period of time, the United States is DIRECTED, within 30 days after entry of this Order, to file on the public docket either: (1) a notice informing the Court as to whether it requests that the proposed modification be approved and entered, or (2) a Fifth Joint Status Report.
  • “If a Fifth Joint Status Report is entered, the United States must therein: (1) provide a detailed accounting of the hours expended on this matter per attorney and/or paraprofessional, since the lodging of the proposed modification on October 21, 2020, and (2) more specifically explain the status of the comment review process and the reason(s) for the delay.”

 

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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