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DeKalb County’s sewage treatment update remains under review after six months

By David Pendered

Since Dec. 4, 2020, the federal EPA has been evaluating more than 300 pages of public comments submitted in response to proposed changes in DeKalb County’s federal consent decree that’s to stop the spillage of untreated sewage into waterways.

For six months, the EPA has been reviewing public comments submitted in a proposed modification of DeKalb County’s federal consent decree related to the leaks of untreated sewage into waterways. Credit: Kelly Jordan

This deal was widely discussed when it was laid on the table in October 2020. The expectation among parties was that the EPA would complete its task and a federal judge could affirm the deal in early 2021.

The deal outlined a path forward for DeKalb County to upgrade its sewage system and stop the leaks of untreated waste in a way that satisfied the co-signers of the original, 2011 consent decree – the federal and state governments, and DeKalb County.

Incidentally, this consent decree does not address the flow of waste into the South River. The river is polluted by untreated sewage flowing from an area of the DeKalb County not covered by the consent decree. This situation remains an ongoing and unaddressed problem that the organization American Rivers identified in April as a national example of environmental injustice. A majority of residents of affected neighborhoods are Black.

While the EPA continues its review of public comments, the federal judge who’s to finalize the proposed modification to the consent decree cannot complete the task.

U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg has tried to move the case along. Grimberg issued an order April 13 setting a deadline of May 10 for the submission of a third status report and indication of whether the Justice Department had published in the Federal Register any findings by the EPA.

Valerie Mann, a Justice Department attorney, submitted a motion May 10 observing that the EPA is was still in the process of reviewing 39 comments that total more than 300 pages:

Two kaykers on the South River

Untreated sewage flows into the South River from areas of DeKalb County not addressed by the federal consent decree. Credit: Sue Sanders

  • “The United States continues to evaluate these extensive comments. When done, the United States will file a document informing the Court as to whether the United States requests that the Modification be approved and entered, and will do so as expeditiously as possible, in coordination with the State.”

Grimberg responded with an order on May 11 that was fairly succinct:

  • “The parties are DIRECTED to file a fourth status report on or before July 12.”

None of the papers in the court file appears to relate any of the delay to the transition in presidential administrations. The timing is of note.

The deadline for public comment on the proposed modification of DeKalb’s federal consent decree was extended to Dec. 4, 2020. Only after this date could the EPA begin its formal review of comments.

Meantime, in early December, then President Trump was contesting the outcome of the election and the count that showed Joe Biden had won the election.

Biden’s pick as EPA administrator, Michael Regan, was confirmed by the Senate March 10.

October will mark one year since this modification to DeKalb County’s 2011 consent decree was laid on the table:

  • The proposal lays the blame for failure to fix the county’s leaking sewage system on administrations preceding that of Chief Executive Officer Michael Thurmond;
  • DeKalb County agrees to a Dec. 20, 2027 deadline to prevent raw sewage from spilling onto the ground and into waterways;
  • DeKalb County is to devise and use a computer model that’s to forecast the impact of a proposed development on the sewer system’s ability to manage sewage created by the development;
  • The cost of repairs will exceed $1 billion;
  • DeKalb County is to pay a civil penalty of $1.047 million.


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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1 Comment

  1. Erik Speakman June 4, 2021 9:44 am

    i regularly bike ride on the PATH along the South River. After each big rain, they post little yellow signs about a spill – which really means there is most likely [email protected] (fecal matter) on the greenspace and sometimes the PATH. As a result of COVID a lot more residents along the PATH are utilizing it (mostly families of color), and they do not realize the reality of those signs and that their County Leadership is still allowing this to occur in their neighborhood.Report


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