The annual Dirty Dozen list from the Georgia Water Coalition tread some oft-trod ground around Southeast Georgia — notably the Rayonier Advanced Materials plant along the Altamaha River, hazardous waste cleanup, coal ash disposal, oil and gas exploration and the Sea Island spit.
“So, on the heels of a contentious election, in the report we asked the question, which is dirtier — Georgia’s rivers, lakes and streams, or Georgia’s politics?” asked Joe Cook, advocacy and communications coordinator for the Coosa River Basin Initiative. He pointed to 10 days in late March, which included the conclusion of EPD action regarding Rayonier AM, a process that began months earlier.
“The Georgia Department of Natural Resources board voted to change the state’s water quality rules,” Cook said. “The change was proposed after EPD and the Rayonier Advanced Materials pulp mill in Jesup lost a legal challenge brought by the Altamaha Riverkeeper. A state judge ruled that the pulp mill’s discharge into the Altamaha violated those state rules. So, EPD simply changed the rules, allowing the pulp mill to continue its pollution. And, by the way, a manager from the Jesup mill sits on that DNR board that voted to change the rules.”
In November 2017, EPD Director Richard Dunn said the rules change — adding the word “unreasonably,” and replacing the word “legitimate” with the word “designated,” regarding discharges into a water body — was only a clarification and didn’t change the stringency of the standards.
Cook also noted decisions made that underfund cleanup efforts.
“That same week at the state capital … powerful legislative leaders in the Senate stalled a measure that passed 166-1 in the House,” Cook said. “That measure would’ve put an end to the annual misappropriation of the fees citizens and businesses pay to support state clean community programs. In 2017, we paid $21 million into the hazardous waste and solid waste trust funds, but legislators provided only $6.8 million of this for its intended purpose. At current funding levels, it will take the state 176 years to clean up the state’s hazardous waste sites.”
In Glynn County, there are three sites where cleanup may be reimbursed by the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund. Those are the 4th Street Landfill, the Glynn-Cate Road Construction and Demolition Municipal Solid Waste Landfill, and the Brunswick Wood Preserving site, which is also listed as a federal Superfund site. All other Glynn County hazardous waste sites, as categorized by the state, are classified as being dealt with by their responsible parties. The EPD removes sites from its Hazardous Waste Inventory when applicable cleanup standards are met.
The General Assembly also dealt with landfill tipping fees, which Cook said may encourage out-of-state dumping of coal ash in Georgia.
“In the last week of March this year, in the waning moments of the 2018 legislative session, Georgia Power Company lobbyists persuaded legislators to leave landfill tipping fees for toxic coal ash at $1 per ton, while the household garbage rate increased to $2.50 per ton,” Cook said. “The back-room amendment gives Georgia Power a potential $12 million windfall at the expense of local governments and local communities.”
Jennette Gayer, state director of Environment Georgia, directed attention to the Spaceport Camden project, and ongoing efforts to develop the Sea Island spit.
“(Camden) County has spent $5 million on the plan, and still, it would be the only such facility in the country to launch rockets over such inhabited and heavily used areas,” Gayer said. “Evacuations could shut down tourism on the island, which is responsible for around $86.9 million in economic activity in Camden County. Aerospace experts are actually critical of the plan, and it appears Camden County is building a launchpad to nowhere.”
She said construction plans for the spit can only be considered as ill- conceived.
“The project will require construction of a large groin, or rock wall, along the beachfront, and the intent of the wall is to build up the beach just south of another rock groin built in 1990 that has caused the erosion of the beach that Sea Island is now trying to rebuild,” Gayer said. “Coastal experts argue the project will jeopardize the ecological integrity of the spit, and prevent the natural movement of sand to other coastal areas, potentially further diminishing beaches on nearby St. Simons Island.”
The Sea Island Company counters that the project isn’t the environmental detriment that it’s been called, and that’s one of the reasons the Army Corps of Engineers has gone along with the plans. The Corps, however, is now being sued by three different environmental organizations over its actions regarding the spit.
The GWC also knocked Gov. Nathan Deal for his silence on oil and gas exploration off the Georgia shore, but one way or another, the state will have a new governor before too long. Both Republican nominee Brian Kemp and Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams have said they oppose offshore drilling here.