DeKalb County official fears EPA penalties

At Robert Fagan's home in Decatur, when it rains, sometimes it pours....raw sewage. He says it happens all the time.

“It's a horrible stench. After it's over you see nothing but toilet paper and all sorts of sewage. The dirty stuff,” says Fagan.

Robert Fagan is far from alone.  DeKalb County has had 112 sewage spills just this year. The problems happen when heavy rains leach through old pipes and overwhelm the system. The resulting overflow can send water and sewage into streets, rivers, and yards.

DeKalb has had so many spills over the years; the EPA took the county to court and signed a Consent Decree demanding that the county fix the problems back in 2011.

But, how does that affect growth in the county? What about new developments?

According to DeKalb Watershed Management, the EPA wanted the county to make sure its sewer system could handle any new development before allowing a developer to tie into the county system. But we've found that didn't happen with Mercy Care Hospital. Earlier this year, the $14 million, 4500 square foot hospital opened in Chamblee. Mercy Care provides hospital care for uninsured and low-income patients.

The grand opening was delayed because the hospital hadn't built a complex and expensive storage system to handle sewage overflow that the county said it needed. Emails from Mercy Care show they were surprised about the new requirement and didn't know until late in the building process.

Without a backup sewer storage system in place and without telling DeKalb County Watershed, the city of Chamblee gave Mercy Care permission to open and connect to the county sewer system.

Chamblee City Manager, Jon Walker said simply Mercy Care had met all the county requirements and the county had hooked the hospital into its system.

But the DeKalb Watershed Department director saw it differently. Scott Towler wrote that the connection "is a direct violation of the (EPA) consent decree" and exposes "DeKalb County, myself individually, and my staff to civil and criminal penalties described in the Consent Decree."

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond says he came into office when the Mercy Care dispute was already under way. He says he's heard two conflicting stories from his own Department and the city of Chamblee. 

I asked him if Mercy Care was off the hook.

“No absolutely not,” says Thurmond.  We'll continue to evaluate that particular situation; we're trying to get to the bottom of what happened, who did what, when, where.”

Thurmond says he is undertaking a study of the Watershed department and the EPA consent decree and wants to develop policies to make sure a situation like Mercy Care doesn't happen again.

Thurmond says the county is already taking action: replacing old manhole covers and dredging more than 80 tons of debris out the county sewer system. 

“I look at it more globally, says the CEO, “It's an issue bigger than Mercy Care, it's an issue about the future growth and development of DeKalb County.”

Not long after Mercy Care opened, a huge spill occurred downstream from the hospital at this location. The rain dumped 182,000 gallons of wastewater into a creek. 

We asked the EPA who oversees the consent decree what they thought. They had no comment.