DeKalb County admitted this week that it failed to report a number of sewage issues over the last four years, including 35 spills that reached the region's waterways. The county is required to report such issues to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency according to a 2010 federal court order.
Findings from an internal investigation submitted to the EPA show county employees sometimes didn't record a spill or overflow if they didn't witness it themselves. They also didn't report many cases where sewage simply flooded an area or building.
County spokesperson Burke Brennan said employees still responded to and treated the sewage problems, even though they went unreported.
Brennan added that the DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management has already taken steps to improve the reporting process and ensure its accuracy going forward. Those changes were outlined in the documents sent to the EPA.
“What we’ve done is, first of all, we’ve increased the training,” said Brennan. “And we have a check and balance. We have oversight.”
The county’s findings have some environmental advocates, like GreenLaw attorney Hutton Brown, feeling cautiously optimistic, although Brown questions whether the county has really accounted for all unreported cases of sewage overflow.
"You know, with that self-diagnosis, you can now treat the patient. I think that's what's happening,” said Brown. He has worked with DeKalb County residents affected by sewage overflow.
While Juliet Cohen, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said no spill should go unreported, she said 35 unreported spills were relatively few compared to the more than 500 that DeKalb County experienced during the four-year period.
Cohen also found a silver lining in the overall numbers included in the internal investigation of sewage overflow in the county.
“If you look at the trend in terms of total spills, the county is showing improvement,” said Cohen. “They have a long way to go.”
The EPA couldn't comment on whether the county would face penalties for the reporting errors during the four-year period.