539 toxic spots in Georgia? Who cares?

Lawmakers take money from trust fund, leave no IOU

About this time last year, lawmakers and the governor’s budget experts thought it would be a good idea to take about $9 million out of the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund and spend it on things besides cleaning up the most toxic sites in the state.

The raid on the trust fund left the state Environmental Protection Division with no money to begin new cleanup projects. And it looks like the EPD will get even less funding for the next fiscal year, which means cleanups now underway will have to stop.

Currently, there are 539 properties in Georgia that are so contaminated with toxins that they’ve been placed on a special list of hazardous sites. There are more of these sites in Fulton County — 46 — than any other.

According to state law, the companies that caused the contamination are responsible for cleaning up their mess. However, when no clear line of responsibility can be determined, or when the responsible company goes bankrupt, it’s up to the EPD to pay for the cleanup. Those abandoned sites are the reason the trust fund exists.

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers says there are 19 abandoned sites so polluted they need cleaning up right away, and there are 26 other abandoned sites that will eventually need similar remediation.

The trust fund “is good for business because it cleans up brownfields. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for public health because they clean up leaking landfills that leak into our drinking water,” says Jason Rooks, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. “This is the last program that needs to be cut.”

Perhaps the most outrageous part of the environmental agency’s problem is that the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund generates an average of $12.6 million a year. That money comes from fees and permits that hazardous waste handlers have to pay. And Georgia residents contribute $1 for every new tire to the Solid Waste Trust Fund, which is used to clean up old landfills that make it onto the EPD’s list of hazardous sites.

Yet lawmakers are using the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund like it’s a piggy bank.

EPD officials told legislators Jan. 26 that they needed at least $5.2 million to keep from having to shut down clean up projects that are currently underway at eight high-priority abandoned sites. That $5.2 million would also cover the cost of cleaning up 12 other abandoned sites, five in Fulton County.

Right now, lawmakers are planning on putting $3.6 million into the trust fund — $1.6 million less than what the environmental agency requested.

“[Other lawmakers and the governor] are not only taking money that isn’t theirs, they’re taking [the trust fund] below the bare minimum threshold,” says state Rep. John Noel, whose district includes a landfill that the EPD has declared a hazardous site. “And in the meantime, you got little kids on Big Wheels riding around in yards where mercury readings are off the charts.”

One of the abandoned sites the EPD has deemed high priority is a vacant lot on Whitehall Street that abuts Spelman College. To make a few extra bucks, homeless men and women used to burn pilfered wire and other coated metals there. After they cooked the wire, the savvy ad hoc entrepreneurs sold the remaining copper to a recycling center next door.

Over the years, the fires left the lot so contaminated with lead that levels are now too high to be quantified. Lead pollution in the ground is literally off the charts. Also in the soil is benzene, which can cause dizziness and unconsciousness when inhaled. Long-term exposure to benzene affects bone marrow, and is linked to anemia and leukemia.

Right now, there are four wells at the site that collect groundwater, which is then removed so it doesn’t drift into other waterways and spread contamination.

Next, the EPD or a subcontractor is scheduled to remove piles of leftover ash and massive chunks of the lot’s topsoil. At least that was the plan. But the agency won’t be able to clean up the rest of the site unless lawmakers come through with the $5.2 million. That will be decided as lawmakers hash out the state budget.

Last year, Perdue granted the EPD’s request for funding, only to have it slashed by state lawmakers. This year, the governor isn’t making the same mistake twice.

“The governor supports both of these programs but feels that since the Legislature cut the funding from these programs in 2004, he’s leaving it to their initiative to set the levels of funding,” says Perdue spokesman Shane Hix.

As Perdue and legislators engage in their tug-of-war, the polluted sites across Georgia fester.