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Environmental racism, heightened risk of COVID-19 infection arise in talks over sewage in DeKalb County, Atlanta

David Pendered
The South River will continue to receive sewage that spills from DeKalb County sewerage, following a federal court ruling. File

By David Pendered

Allegations of environmental racism that is said to contribute to COVID-19 risks in south DeKalb County were filed by a neighborhood association July 24 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The letter was submitted in a lawsuit over DeKalb’s progress on its federal consent decree to stop polluting waterways.

DeKalb, covid, environmental racism

An area in eastern DeKalb County is at high vulnerability for COVID-19 infection for its ‘above average environmental health hazard,’ according to this map that’s included in a citizen’s letter to a federal judge. Credit: Letter filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta

In an unrelated development, Atlanta’s latest sewer project is slated to result in a situation where partially treated sewage will continue to be discharged into the South River. Wednesday is the deadline for bids from companies seeking to work on the projected $56 million project to decommission the Intrenchment Creek sewage treatment facility and improve the South River treatment plant, located southeast of Grant Park, city records show.

Both matters relate to the pre World War II sewerage in Atlanta and DeKalb County.

Both jurisdictions are under federal consent decrees to take steps necessary to stop releasing untreated sewage and other pollutants into waterways. DeKalb’s consent decree was set to expire June 20. In Atlanta, city voters this summer agreed to extend the 1 percent municipal option sales tax to pay for mandatory sewage improvements.

The allegations of environmental racism and associated risks of heightened risks of COVID-19 infection were contained in a letter sent to U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg. Grimberg is overseeing the case filed against DeKalb County by the South River Watershed Alliance. The alliance contends the county has not complied with a federal consent decree to stop polluting waterways.

Intrenchment Creek locator map

Atlanta intends to decommission a sewage treatment plant on Intrenchment Creek (marked in purple) and upgrade the nearby South River treatment plant. The treated sewage will be discharged into the Chattahoochee River, not into the South River. Credit: Georgia Tech

Grimberg conducted on July 14 a virtual motions hearing to hear DeKalb County’s claim that the lawsuit should be dismissed. DeKalb contends, among other points, the alliance does not have standing to file the lawsuit. Grimberg’s order issued after the hearing does not indicate when he expects to rule.

In the letter to the judge, Clarence E. Williams states that he writes on behalf of more than 280 individuals in an organization, Justice on Chapel Hill, Inc. According to the letter, the environmental problems have continued more than 30 years:

  • “This would have never happened in Dunwoody or Brookhaven, but repeatedly happens in South DeKalb County/ Georgia….
  • “Through County open records data we estimate that during the 30 year period more than 2.8 billion gallons of industrial/toxic waste, carrying the known toxins have been sent through the failing sewer system….
  • “All these issues have led to increased exposure of South DeKalb County residents to the Covid-19 pandemic with ABOVE AVERAGE ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH HAZARDS as a major contributing factor.”

The pending lawsuit was filed in 2019 by the alliance, which contends the county is not complying with the consent decree – which was due to expire Jun 20. The watershed expanded its claim earlier this year, stating that since 2014 significant volumes of sewage have been spilled in areas not covered by the 2010 federal consent decree that mandates sewerage improvements. The alliance contends:

  • “Half of 1,000-plus sewage spills have occurred outside the purview of the consent decree;
  • “An estimated 32 million gallons of raw sewage has spilled from areas outside the consent decree.”

The South River will continue to receive discharges of partially treated sewage from a facility in Atlanta. File

Meanwhile, Atlanta is proceeding with its plans to decommission the Intrenchment Creek sewage treatment plant and update the South River sewage treatment plant, city records show. The estimated cost is $56 million, city records show.

This sum is in addition to the $28.6 million Atlanta spent to complete in 2007 the Intrenchment Creek Combined Sewer Overflow Water Quality Control Facility, city records show.

Decommissioning the plant does not mean closing it. Sewage will still flow to the facility. The plan is for sewage to be sifted through grit filters and sent for treatment at the South River Water Reclamation Plant. Currently, the Intrenchment Creek plant is supposed to treat sewage before sending it for full treatment at the South River facility. But the plant is difficult to maintain and should be taken off-line, according to an enforcement order issued December 2018 by the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The South River facility discharges all its treated effluent into the Chattahoochee River. The effluent is delivered from the plant toward the river through the Three Rivers Tunnel, completed in 1985. This distribution of water resources is part of Atlanta’s effort to main flow in the closely monitored Chattahoochee River.

During times of heavy rain, the South River plant could receive more sewage than it can process. To prevent a backlog, the city’s solution is to release the combination of domestic sewage and stormwater runoff into the South River. This solution is standard in cities that, like Atlanta, have combined sewerage systems where domestic sewage and runoff flows into the same sewer pipes.

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David Pendered
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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