DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - A Channel 2 Action News investigation found that DeKalb water officials made a serious error with a public health warning last summer.
The head of the agency downplayed the scale of the risk, even as complaints poured in from all over the county.
When water pressure drops too low, for any reason, there’s a risk the water will become contaminated.
In this case from August 2013, that risk was system wide, affecting 700,000 people. A state inspector complained soon after that DeKalb County had a pattern of not issuing required public health warnings.
The problem started at DeKalb’s massive Scott Candler plant in Doraville. DeKalb County’s response to the drop in water pressure made it seem like a minor disruption, affecting only 37,000 customers in Tucker.
But, what virtually no one knew in August is that DeKalb County was besieged by customer complaints about low pressure from Lithonia, Tucker, Stone Mountain, Decatur, Chamblee, Doraville and Dunwoody – the entire county.
James Capp is in charge of the water safety branch at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
“Well, I think our end result was they didn’t do a good enough job," Capp said.
“I’m not sure that there was much correspondence between the level of risk, if you will, and the response,” said professor Sam Beadles.
Beadles is a professor at Southern Polytechnic and an engineer with experience in public water systems.
He reviewed the records and concluded that DeKalb officials minimized the problem – perhaps to avoid embarrassment.
“The county is not, is never really thrilled to have to issue a boil water advisory, especially if it’s a big one,” Beadles said.
There is a big difference in the eyes of the public between a warning that affects 30,000 or 40,000 people or one for 700,000.
Dr. James Chansler took over the department after the incident. He says the error was the result of an honest difference of opinion,
“You don’t want to get the problem out there of crying wolf all the time, so you really consider what’s going on when you do a boil water area,” Chansler said.
A state inspector was far more critical, writing, “The boil water advisory should have been issued system wide. Calls from customers that were out of the water were not heeded by upper management.”
Chansler said no one has been disciplined in connection to the botched warning. He said he does not think there is any need to.
He said he would give DeKalb County’s water system a grade of “needs improvement.”
After a 7-month investigation, the EPD ordered DeKalb to develop a plan to avoid future problems and fined the county $1,000.
Beadles said a $1,000 fine for the government does not get their attention.
“That would be, you know, the hand slap, at best,” Beadles said.
The EPD said the point is not the amount of the fine, but getting DeKalb to improve.
Chansler said he is already changing who has the authority to order a boil water advisory.
Whistleblower faces 3-month suspension
The whistleblower who complained to the state about the DeKalb Watershed Department’s handling of the advisory was suspended for three months.
Scott Shepler has worked at DeKalb Watershed for nearly 17 years. He immediately complained to the state Environmental Protection Division following the August incident.
Two days later, a state inspector wrote that Shepler’s string of emails “greatly concerns me…I fear there may be some truth to his allegations.”
Nine days later, DeKalb Watershed ordered Shepler out of the plant.
Chansler took over the Watershed department right after the incident. He said Shepler was not punished for being a whistleblower.
“Oh, no. Not at all. It was other disciplinary reasons that he was put on administrative leave,” Chansler said.
Chansler said Shepler was sent home because he had repeatedly violated the chain of command.
The county intended to suspend him with pay for three days, but it inadvertently turned into three months.
“I would say he slipped through the cracks,” Chansler said.
Shepler’s boss described him as disgruntled, but he was dead right about the county’s mishandling of the water warning in August 2013.
Charles Lambert was the Watershed director at the time of the incident. He issued Channel 2 a statement in December saying that DeKalb did not investigate the incident because “the EPD was satisfied with our progress.”
Belcher reviewed stacks of state emails and found nothing to suggest that the EPD ever said it was satisfied with DeKalb.
“I’m not aware of that. Certainly not from me. I’m not aware that we did (say that),” Capp said. “I have not seen anything to that effect.”
Chansler, however, said he does not think Lambert lied.
“I haven’t talked to Charles about what might have happened here, but Charles felt that they were satisfied, or he wouldn’t have said that,” Chansler said.
Chansler said he’s making changes to avoid future failures, but he is convinced what happened in August was an honest difference of opinion between professionals.
The county declined to give Shepler permission to talk to Belcher.