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Sewer Capacity, Sanitary Sewer Overflow, and Consent Decree

Open Letter To: The Taxpayers of DeKalb
DeKalb County Board of Commissioner
Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Tucker and Dunwoody City Council members, Mayors and City Managers

Re: Sewer Capacity, Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSOs), and Consent Decree

I am writing to share with you my thoughts and observations about the status of DeKalb’s sewer system pursuant to the recent reports of significant sanitary overflow (SSOs) in Brookhaven and Lithonia.

As you know, DeKalb is under a Federal Consent Decree (CD) to make improvements to the sewer system to prevent SSOs. The DeKalb Department of Watershed Management (DWM) website is where you can see all the various reports DeKalb submits to the EPA, report a spill, and review various other important components of the CD program.

My opinions about the status of the CD and the efficacy of the DWM is based on my review of the history of actions, inaction, and staffing changes within the DWM and other county departments.

The first problem with the management of the CD and the DWM has been the significant turn over in leadership staff. I have not yet completed three years on the Board of Commissioners (BOC), yet I have seen three directors of this department. Only one of the directors has been a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) – our current director. Prior to my time on the BOC, there were changes to leadership just as frequently. The result of this flux was that the activity that should have been initiated by the CD was anything but robust.

When our new DWM Director and two new Deputies were hired by the county in late 2015, they started reviewing and auditing the status of the DWM regarding its compliance, regulatory, operations, and CD requirements. Based on meetings and reports, it was clear they found the DWM lacking in many areas. I had come to believe there was zero compliance management and the new team’s review validated my concerns. They identified that DeKalb had been misreporting SSOs to the EPA and set about to correct previous reports and accurately report current issues. They found many compliance and regulatory issues and proceeded to report and remediate these. Many of these findings have never made their way to the BOC as a whole or the public.

Early in their tenure, the new leadership team within DWM, indicated that we were behind with our CD work. They were clear that if DeKalb did not speed up work on the CD, the county would miss the deadline. The team developed a plan that would enable the work to get done timely. They recommended prequalifying several firms for a design “design-build” approach and then letting them bid as these large, important procurement packages were released for bid.

The “Design-Build” method is used by other jurisdictions in Georgia. This method is also used by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

From GDOTs website: “Design-Build combines preconstruction services with construction services into a single contract. Design-Build projects allow the contractor to participate in the project’s design in an effort to reduce costs, improve communication and expedite project delivery.” You can read more about the efficiencies of the Design-Build approach on GDOT’s Design-Build manual website.

This process was first delayed while the legal and procurement staff took time to examine the new methods DWM professional engineers wanted to employ. Recently, the administration has held up the contracting of awards that have been approved by the BOC.

A sample list of some of the delays and problems I see:

• The BOC awarded the RFP#1 on April 11, 2017. To date, that award does not have an executed contract. Why has the administration failed to act?

• The sewer main where the spill was located in Nancy Creek/Brookhaven was identified for replacement. The scope of work is within the collection system design build package RFP#3 that is currently held in the Procurement department for their review. Why has the administration, through Procurement, delayed important projects?

• The assessment on the sewer line in Lithonia that spilled this week was scheduled for assessment under a recent award for trunk line assessments and cleaning. This procurement had experienced delays. Some major firms are not bidding because of some of our burdensome requirements.

• Major project deadlines within the consent decree are now confirmed by outside engineering consultants to be unattainable. Completion of CD projects will go past the June 2020 deadline.

• A major task codified in the CD is to develop a Hydraulic Model of the sewer system. Why wasn’t this model one of the first priorities upon publication of the CD executed on 12/13/2010 and published in the Federal Register on 12/20/2010? Why does the County administration resist acknowledging that DWM has developed, through a robust effort in 2015-2016) a Hydraulic Model for use pursuant to the CD language quoted below?

“Once the Model is fully developed for each Sewershed, the County shall authorize new sewer service connections or increases in flow from existing sewer service connections in that Sewershed only after certifying that the receiving portions of the WCTS have adequate collection and transmission capacity and the applicable WWTF has adequate treatment capacity to accept flows from such new sewer service connections and/or increases in flows from existing service connections.”

“In developing estimates and projections for certifying adequate capacity, the County shall use flow meter data, the Model, and sound engineering judgment. All certifications of adequate collection, transmission and treatment capacity shall be made by a professional engineer registered in the State of Georgia and shall be approved by a responsible party of the County as defined by 40 C.F.R. § 122.22(b). The County shall maintain all such certifications and all data on which such certifications are based.”

While many variables that now affect the CD negatively are mistakes and delays from the past, the administrations in 2016 and now, 2017, are compounding the mistakes and delays. Rather than listening to the professional engineers who have successfully navigated systems through these types of projects in their career, the administration has become increasingly opaque.

The work that needs to be done to fix the decades of neglect of the sewer system is serious business. This is not the time for press conferences, photo ops, deft political maneuvers, or bringing back former officials who got us into this predicament. More spills will continue to occur if the administration continues to ignore the Hydraulic model and sound engineering judgement. Clogged sewer pipes and contaminated streams and rivers do not fix themselves by hearing rhetoric and empty promises. This will only get better if the County administration is transparent and robustly supports the qualified team of professional engineers and our strategic partners without delay.

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