Hell freezes over

Business, greenies support a good bill

A rare thing happened at a House Natural Resources subcommittee meeting last Wednesday: Georgia Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Mike Kumpf stood up to voice his support for a piece of environmental legislation. He was followed by Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring, who said about the same thing.

Pigs immediately took to the skies.

Few would have bet on such a happy outcome a year ago when the General Assembly put together a committee to decide whether to re-authorize a law that lets the EPD use fines and fees to cleanup hazardous sites.

Last year, Sen. Carol Jackson, D-Cleveland, and Rep. Tom Shanahan, D-Calhoun, were named to co-chair a panel of industry and environmental representatives to review the “State Superfund” law. While it may seem arcane, the law is important to people who live near hundreds of sites where toxic chemicals threaten their children’s health and property values.

Among them are people who live in a Rome, Ga., neighborhood near an old General Electric transformer plant that contaminated the ground with a hazardous class of chemicals called PCBs. GE already has cleaned up a park, private houses and the West Central Elementary School, but acres of contaminated soil and groundwater remain. GE is suing the state to minimize the remaining cleanup “because they think the terms are too stringent,” says Jennifer Kaduck, chief of the EPD Hazardous Waste Management Branch.

When no private party is found to pay for such a cleanup, Kaduck’s office must fund it. The money comes from hazardous and solid waste handling fees. But fees haven’t kept up with the need for cleanups. More than 500 sites are now on the Superfund list, and the state can’t clean them up fast enough.

Says Shanahan: “Everybody wanted to continue funding and everybody wanted to increase the funding.”

Based on the panel’s recommendations, EPD came up with a bill that would increase by about $5 million a year the fees waste handlers have to pay into the fund.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce doesn’t often agree that businesses should pay higher fees for environmental cleanups. But it did this time because another part of the bill would let developers turn a buck and clean up a contaminated site. It limits the liability of new owners of contaminated land, which is likely to free up more old, urban “brownfield” sites for redevelopment. A companion resolution gives developers a tax break for the money they spend on cleaning up a site.

“Nobody likes to increase fees and [businesses] probably aren’t jumping up and down about the increased fees,” Shanahan says. “In their minds, there may be some trade-off for the brownfield part of the bill.”

The bill breezed through a Natural Resources subcommittee and the full committee Feb. 20. Because both environmentalists and business leaders support it, it’s expected to fly through the House and Senate, probably in the next week or so.

Not everyone would call the bill perfect. Shanahan says that at public hearings last year, Charles “Chet” Tisdale, an attorney at the high-powered King & Spalding law firm (whose clients include GE) tried unsuccessfully to force a review of EPD’s cleanup standards. He and other industry representatives claimed the standards could be weakened without compromising the environment.

“I don’t feel that is in the best interest of the state,” Shanahan says.

Tidsdale and GE might triumph in the end. Tisdale couldn’t be reached by phone, but Kaduck says that — even as they wrangle with him over the GE litigation — EPD officials have been talking to Tisdale about the standards.

EPD Director Harold Reheis said he’s putting together another committee to study the cost effectiveness of the program. Over the next year, the new panel of industry officials, environmentalists and EPD staff members will discuss the current standards. Kaduck will argue that they’re based on scientific data that establishes what constitutes a clean site. Industry representatives say EPD could clean up more sites if it didn’t spend as much money doing as it does now.

“If these meetings can come up with a cheaper way to clean up a site, then OK,” Kaduck says. “But they can’t erode our job of protecting the environment and human health.”??