“Non-Priority” Under the Clean Water Act? By Diane Adoma, PhD

Residents of south DeKalb County were surprised when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DeKalb County announced in late 2010 that an agreement had been reached on a consent decree. This legal agreement set forth the details of what the County must do to come into compliance with the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA).  It would bring about an end to sewage pollution that has fouled neighborhood streams and the South River for decades, or so we thought.

Innumerable spills, each a violation of the CWA, went virtually unnoticed by federal and state regulators for decades except for an occasional monetary fine that proved to be ineffective to compel compliance. While residents waited, many, especially those living along the South River saw the value of their most valuable possession, their home, plummet.  Today, and another ten years later, residents of south DeKalb County are still being denied a safe and clean environment free from sewage spills and polluted waterways.

The source of the problem is language in the consent decree that describes south DeKalb County as “non-priority”. This language assigns an unmistakable lack of importance to the over 400,000 Black residents that call this section of the county home.  To use these words to describe this situation, in this day and time, demonstrates a callousness and lack of awareness unbecoming of any federal agency.  Not to mention the one charged with ensuring environmental equity.  If there is one certainty at this point in our nation’s history it is that words, matter.  How a community is viewed by those responsible for fixing the problem, DeKalb County, and those responsible for ensuring the problem is fixed, EPA, matter.

The County estimates repairing the sewer system will cost $1 billion.  This cost will be borne by all residents throughout the county, priority-area and non-priority alike, through higher water and sewer rates.  This means is that, south DeKalb County residents will pay for fixing the sewer system in other neighborhood while our neighborhoods continue to experience sewage spills caused by an antiquated system with no requirement to repair.  If we all have the responsibility to pay, we must also demand to reap the benefits of a quality functioning sewer system.

How can the section of DeKalb County with a documented history of sanitary sewage spills dating back to 1961 not meet the criteria of a priority?  If a problem affecting the entire county escalates to the level of requiring a federal consent decree to fix, the entire county should be designated a priority.  Not unlike citizens living in the sections of DeKalb County deemed “priority area”, the citizens of south DeKalb County have an equal right to a safe and clean environment. The CWA requires it and the residents of south DeKalb demand it. Equal protection under the law, is the law.