Before a penny is spent on repairing DeKalb County’s aging watershed infrastructure, more than $1 million has already been spent on legal fees for the pending consent decree.
Add to that amount $35,000 for a communications campaign and $453,000 to be paid for the environmental fine, and the before-repair costs exceed $1.53 million.
As of April 11, the county had been billed $1,048,250.54, by Troutman Sanders LLP, an international law firm hired by DeKalb County to handle its legal negotiations with the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. All but the March invoice of nearly $20,000 had been paid.
“It is not uncommon for us to employ outside council,” said DeKalb’s Chief Communication’s Officer Burke Brennan. “We had an issue with the EPA and they [Troutman Sanders] helped to negotiate the best outcome for DeKalb County.”
For their work associated with the EPA consent decree, Troutman Sanders partners’ billed $350 per hour and associates are capped at $260 per hour, Brennan said.
In December, the EPA announced it had negotiated a proposed consent decree with DeKalb in which the county agreed to the targeted cleanup of streams and major long-term improvements to its sanitary sewer systems.
The decree states that the county “does not admit any liability to the United States or the state arising out of the transactions or occurrences alleged in the Complaint.”
Instead the county “recognizes that its WCTS [wastewater collection and transmission system] would benefit from additional assessments and rehabilitation of priority areas and from assessments conducted systemwide on an ongoing basis.”
DeKalb County also agreed to pay a $453,000 penalty for excessive sewage spills. The proposed consent agreement came after a joint federal and state complaint was filed against the county for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act.
Brennan said county officials are pleased with the work of Troutman Sanders on the consent decree.
According to a statement from Brennan, Troutman Sanders was engaged by a letter dated February 2009 to negotiate with the EPA and EPD over terms for the proposed consent decree.
“The firm was selected based on a combination of hourly rate, overall environmental experience and qualifications, and prior work with and knowledge of DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management,” according to the statement. Troutman Sanders handles various environmental issues for the county.
“Troutman Sanders’ involvement with the EPA consent decree likely will not end until the decree is satisfied, though the amount of their work should decrease dramatically,” according to the statement.
The county’s strategy was to make sure the EPA focused on the specific problems with the sewage spills, Commissioner Jeff Rader said.
“We are not skimping on compliance,” Rader said. Instead, the county is trying to ensure “less of a burden on oversight.”
Other municipalities that did not actively negotiate with the EPA on their consent decrees have had to deal with significant bureaucratic overhead and have paid dramatically more in legal fees, Rader said.
Doug Denton, vice president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), does not believe the best interests of residents are served by the proposed consent decree. The SRWA filed a motion on April 7 to intervene as a plaintiff in the proposed consent decree.
“While it is true that DeKalb County, GAEPD and USEPA agreed upon the consent decree, I cannot accept, after reviewing said document, that citizens’ health and general welfare was the primary focus of settlement discussions,” Denton said.
“Equally repugnant is the dollar amount expended of public funds on a document which does not outline assurances to DeKalb families that their neighborhoods creeks and rivers will be free of harmful pollutants,” Denton said.
In addition to hiring a law firm for the consent decree, the county paid $35,000 for a four-month contract to help manage the communications campaign about the decree and coming water and the sewer rate hike.