DeKalb punishes drunk drivers with sewage plant detail
On the last day of his 64-hour community service stint, Michael Sawchuk showed up at the probation office bright and early. As usual, vans from various county agencies and nonprofits pulled into the lot at 7:30 a.m. The involuntary workers, picked at random, were loaded into them. Sawchuk recalls that he and a half-dozen other men were assigned to the van marked DeKalb County Water and Sewer — and that the crowd of workers shouted warnings of the task awaiting them.
"Everybody was like, 'Oh no,'" Sawchuk says. "'You don't want to go there.'"
Up until that point, Sawchuk had no complaints about the seven days he'd so far spent picking up trash from roadsides and parks, pulling weeds outside the jail and tossing stray trash bags into the landfill.
"It was my fault. I was drunk driving," says Sawchuk, who was arrested earlier this year by Emory police for DUI on a scooter. "I shouldn't have been doing that."
But he says his last day of community service, March 9, stood apart from the others: "They started us off shoveling this shit that had fallen out of these bins. The very first thought I had was, 'I shouldn't be wearing these clothes. I should have some boots and some sort of disposable bibs or something.'"
He claims the sludge stank of human excrement and the scent followed him home on his clothes. He also says he feels it's unsanitary to be working in such close proximity to human waste without protection or training.
Margaret Howse, a deputy director of DeKalb's Water and Sewer Division, says she cannot confirm that community service workers contracted to serve at the plant work hands-on with sludge.
"Typically, they're used for picking up trash from the grounds and doing some limited grounds keeping work," Howse says. "I don't want to absolutely contradict the gentleman. But I can't think of a situation where they would be shoveling sludge that maybe overflowed from a process unit."
She also points out that one of the two plants where workers are assigned handles human wastes. But by the time the material reaches the bins, it's no longer excrement as we know it.
"After the solids are treated, they get dewatered," Howse says. "Then once it's dewatered, it's sent on a conveyer belt to dump trucks. At that point in time, you'd have to really stretch your imagination to say this is dried human waste."
She says the stuff — whatever it's called after being cut with lime and dried out — doesn't even faintly resemble manure. "It would be clumpier than peat moss, but, I mean, I used to work around it every day. It's not objectionable at that point."
DeKalb Chief Probation Officer Kevin Batye, who oversees the county's community service program, says he's not familiar with Sawchuk's claims that workers at the sewage treatment plant might have been working in close contact with human waste — dried, treated or otherwise.
"If that in fact is hazardous and something out of the ordinary," Batye says, "then we'll definitely talk to Water and Sewer about ceasing that sort of task."
When asked if shoveling the stuff might work as a deterrent against future drunk driving, he says that's not the point of community service.
"We don't come up with details that we think have a punitive component, so to speak," Batye says. "It's work that needs to be done for the community."
He explains that work like the type done at the sewage treatment plant benefits the county by lowering labor costs, and therefore keeping taxes down.
Sawchuk has formed a different opinion.
"You're more like free labor for the county," he says. "It's not really doing the community any good."