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Bill would limit oversight of polluters

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POSTED: March 18, 2010 10:35 a.m.
There is currently a bill being pushed thru the Georgia Legislature that can and will have a very direct adverse effect on the ability of the people to challenge the activities of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). I can only assume that this bill is only the beginning of the influence on policy by the new Director of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), F. Allen Barnes.
Mr. Barnes was recently appointed by Governor Perdue as the new Director of the DNR.  Barnes was previously, from all accounts, involved in a very successful career defending major polluters. His previous employer, an internationally active law firm, is world renowned for their defense against lawsuits brought against polluters of global dimensions. Mr. Barnes was preceded as the director of the EPD by Dr. Carol Couch, a highly qualified marine scientist, who rather abruptly chose to return to academic life at UGA. I suspect her departure may have had something to do with the possibility that she was unable to do her job properly due to political interference. Now we have a lawyer whose background is defending polluters in charge of a state agency charged with preventing pollution!
The Bill I am referring to is SB486. Should this bill become law its negative influence might well be felt locally within the next few weeks. The bill affects every aspect of Georgia’s natural environment and particularly our coastal waters. As an example, the Bill will greatly reduce coastal resident’s ability to challenge the pending permit request by the the Liberty County Development Authority (LCDA) to build a huge wastewater treatment plant designed to dump treated sewage directly into the salt marsh. I have been admonished publicly for not having all the facts until we embarrassed them with the facts. We hear the arguments that they are really going to use spray fields, spray fields that don’t exist. This is not just a Bryan/Liberty County problem. This is an issue that will raise its ugly head all along our coast in rapid succession with repeat systems unless we coastal residents demand to be better served by our political representation.
There remains some very serious, unanswered questions involving the scientific process the EPD is using to arrive at conclusions measuring the ability of the tidal waters to disseminate the pollution without damage to the marsh itself.
I would think that the residents and certainly the leadership of Liberty County would be as interested in insuring that a complete and accurate assessment is done under the most stringent standards as anyone.
From the very beginning those of us who have challenged the process have only asked for one thing and that is that proper scientific analysis be conducted by qualified people. That is asking nothing more than Georgia law dictates but it seems that the law dims in the light of the need for expedience born from the greed and/or misdirection of a few. Too often the entire process is a complete charade.
 The scientific procedures the EPD is using, which include both the process of gathering the raw data from the waters of the Medway River and the modeling format used to process that data, have been challenged as totally inadequate by very reliable scientific sources. Our political leadership in Atlanta needs to stop following the pattern of our non-responsive leadership in Washington and, just this one time, set aside their political wheeling and dealing, listen to the people, recognize the facts, use their common sense and do the right thing. I hope our new Senator Buddy Carter is tuned in to what must be considered the most vital concern this coast has ever had. He most definitely has been apprised of the situation on more than one occasion. We are looking at a very real threat to the health of a very vital eco-system.
It is common knowledge that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the divisions within the DNR such as the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and the Coastal Resources Division (CRD) cannot adequately provide the service to the citizens of Georgia as dictated by Georgia law and promoted in the mission statements of these vitally important governmental agencies.
The reason is simple. They do not have the funding to do so. They perform miracles with what they have, a glaring example that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Were it not for the dedication of the rank and file of the DNR, we could very easily win the “Most Polluted State” award. Sixty percent of our Georgia waters, lakes, river, streams and ponds are currently functioning at sub-standard levels due to pollution. When the DNR is forced to print tri-color charts to warn the public about their consumption of fish in the coastal waters of Georgia something needs to be done. When pregnant women and small children are warned to limit intake of fish and crabs, Governor Perdue’s “Go Fish” program pales. This is Georgia, not Indonesia!
The state of Georgia requires that an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) be done for each project that will potentially impact the environment. The first step is a permit request by the developer or private entity of whatever description such as a power company or an engineering firm that builds waste water treatment plants. Traditionally the EPD has allowed the entity requesting the permit to do the study! That is the epitome of the fox guarding the hen house but it seems unavoidable. It is physically impossible for the EPD to handle all of what must be hundreds of permit requests that come cross their collective desk in very short periods of time. The end result is a very questionable EIS or, as in the case of the EIS done for the waste water treatment plant in Liberty County, a total farce that was publicly exposed to be such.
Since the battle began it has been a learning experience for all of us involved. We have found that facts don’t seem to matter. Political will trumps both common sense and scientific fact. What frequently happens in a dispute with the EPD is that, as a last desperate step the citizenry brings suit against the State and in doing so effectively removes the argument from the legislative branch of government to the judicial bench where professional testimony and fact are considered and have an impact. That costs the state money they don’t have. SB486 is craftily designed and worded to weaken that step. The primary author of this bill is none other than the Chair of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, Senator Ross Tollison. If you Google the Ga. Natural Resources and environmental Committee you can get the names of all members. Unfortunately the coast is only represented by one member, Sen. Jeff Chapman of Brunswick, who does what he can.
We all know the State is broke. If the EPD simply does not have the funding to do proper scientific analysis, or at the very least, a proper review of environmental impact study provided by the developer, then stop the action. There is not room here for a review of the extreme importance the salt marsh eco-system is to all of us. I am not referring just to crabbers or shrimpers or boaters or those so fortunate to have the vistas of the beautiful marsh from their docks. I am referring to a vital link in the life cycle of 85 percent of marine life species and the continuing evolution of the tidal system and its influence that reaches into the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It will be terribly foolish, penny wise and dollar poor to allow a process to continue that holds the potential to cause immeasurable damage to that system when it can easily be avoided. Please don’t read this article and not act. Call your state representative and your Senator. Tell them to vote no on SB486. Do it today. E-mails help but don’t count like a phone call and a letter. Do all three.

Hubbard is a founding member of  the Coastal Estuaries Protection Association and is actively involved in environmental issues. A retired Green Beret, he resides in South Bryan.
 

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