Judge dismisses effort to halt DeKalb County sewage spills that leak into South River
By David Pendered
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to compel DeKalb County to stop spilling sewage from most of its sewer pipes, setting aside concerns about an estimated 32 million gallons of waste that has been leaked from these pipes since 2014.
The South River Watershed Alliance is determining its next steps in the case it filed in 2019, Jackie Echols, the alliance’s president, said Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg’s ruling states he is in “agreement with Plaintiffs’ ultimate goals….”
However, Grimberg wrote, a court cannot intervene in the federal consent decree concerning DeKalb’s sewerage improvement program. DeKalb County signed in 2010 a federal consent decree with the state and federal governments, agreeing to fix some of its broken sewer pipes.
Grimberg cited a ruling issued in 2007 by a federal appellate judge in an Oklahoma case, involving oil and gas extraction. From that ruling, Grimberg quoted this language:
- “Particularly when the EPA chooses to enforce the CWA [Clean Water Act] through a consent decree, failure to defer to its judgment can undermine agency strategy. If a defendant is exposed to a citizen suit whenever the EPA grants it a concession, defendants will have little incentive to negotiate consent decrees.”
Echols said the South River Watershed Alliance, a citizens group, is determining if it will appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We are assessing our options in light of the future of the South River,” Echols said. “This case was critical for that, and it didn’t change a thing. The judge’s ruling eliminates the Clean Water Act’s protection from two-thirds of DeKalb County, and for all of the South River.”
The alliance in May raised the issue that the consent decree covers only a third of the county – mostly in the northern portion, and a segment of western DeKalb County. The consent decree does not cover two-thirds of the county, and the alliance contends that since 2014:
- Half of 1,000-plus sewage spills reported by the county 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.
- About 838 miles of sewer line are covered by the consent decree. More than 1,600 miles of sewer line are not covered by the decree.
Grimberg wrote that the alliance’s goals can best be addressed not in a lawsuit, but in the upcoming public comment period for the county’s request to modify the federal consent decree that compels DeKalb to stop polluting waterways.
DeKalb County, the state and federal governments are to submit to the court by Thursday a timeline for submitting proposed modifications to the 2010 consent decree. Grimberg is overseeing the case.
The parties filed a joint status report on July 10 indicating they had reached an agreement to modify the consent decree. The document has not been submitted, and Grimberg on Aug. 31 issued an order giving them until Sept. 10 to provide estimated date by which they expect to file the proposed modification.