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Going Coastal

Showdown coming over wetlands erosion on Georgia's coast

To the developers building subdivisions in Georgia's coastal counties, James Holland is a straight-up pain in the butt.

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Holland, a former crabber, blames shoddy construction practices and other environmental pollution on the massive decline of Georgia's blue crab industry. Now he's fighting to protect what's left of the wetlands that were essential to the blue crab's lifestyle — and will be crucial in protecting Georgia against a future storm surge.

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In 2000, Holland gave up crabbing for good and, acting on his newfound appreciation for the environment, helped found the group Altamaha Riverkeeper. Now he's the Riverkeeper's chief environmental investigator. When residents spot rainwater carrying red clay off a construction site or come across a chemical spill in a stream, they know to call Holland, who documents the environmental impact and alerts state regulators.

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There are several local, state and federal laws to protect wetlands, marshes and waterways from the pollution stemming from construction and development. But regulators only inspect sites after a citizen complains, meaning that developers typically are left to police themselves.

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Holland specializes in exposing developers who cut environmental corners, either by letting exposed soil dirty up a stream or filling in protected wetlands with dirt. Both actions are prohibited by the Clean Water Act.

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Filling in wetlands is the very practice that left the Gulf Coast so susceptible to storm surges and flooding recently. Of course, unlike New Orleans, Georgia's coastal cities are above sea level — but so were the coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama that were decimated by Hurricane Katrina.

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What's more, tropical storms and hurricanes skirt Georgia's coast almost every hurricane season. A direct hit of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane could be just as damaging here, says Tom Welborn, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Wetlands, Coastal and Nonpoint Source branch.

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Wetlands and marshes act as a sponge and buffer, soaking up floodwaters and calming heavy winds. According to Louisiana Hurricane Recovery Resources, between two and four linear miles of wetlands can reduce storm surges by a foot. Studies also show that removing even a moderate amount of wetlands leads to an increase in intensity of coastal flooding.

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Developers on Georgia's coast already have left the state vulnerable to floods and storm surges, according to Welborn.

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"It's an issue we should be concerned with," he says. "The potential for a lot of damage is there."



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In the past decade, coastal Georgia has undergone a home construction boom.

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In Glynn County, about 250 miles from downtown Atlanta, developers have built 3,151 houses between 1999 and 2003, the latest period for which statistics are available. During 2003, the flat terrain along the coastal county saw more than $104 million in home construction, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

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Developers point out that they're simply meeting the housing demand for a fast-growing corner of the state.

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But environmentalists contend that a lack of enforcement has created a feeding frenzy that ignores the damage caused by poor construction practices.

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In October 2004, a call from one of Holland's neighbors led him to team up with Atlanta lawyers at the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest and take on two developers who he claims are damaging the coast. The neighbor complained about two subdivisions under construction off Emmanuel Church Road in Glynn County. Silver Bluff subdivision will contain 115 homes and three ponds on more than 50 acres. Emmanuel Church Estates has 64 lots covering 60 acres.

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Holland says he found that the sites lacked the hay bales and silt fences legally required to prevent soil and erosion pollution. And when he tested the nearby South Brunswick River for clarity, he found the waters to be six times murkier than the state's standard — a result of pollution Holland attributes to exposed soil washing into the river.

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At first, Holland complained about Silver Bluff and Emmanuel Church Estates to state and environmental enforcers. He sent at least eight e-mails, containing water sample test results and photos showing illegal activity, to Glynn County and officials with the state Environmental Protection Division.

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He says that after his warnings went ignored for seven months, he approached the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest, which has won a string of almost identical cases in metro Atlanta on behalf of the Sierra Club and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

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In one of the more noteworthy cases, the state Department of Corrections agreed to pay $50,000 in attorneys fees and other costs for erosion pollution caused during the expansion of the J.C. Larmore Probation and Detention Center in south Fulton County.

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But the stakes are higher on the coast because of the pace of development and the natural functions of wetlands and marshes.

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"These are very ecologically sensitive areas, and that's why we're being more proactive with cases like this," says Jennifer Pennington, an attorney with the Georgia Center.

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On Jan. 18, Pennington sent the developers of Silver Bluff and Emmanuel Church Estates 60-day notices of intent to sue. The letters repeat Holland's claims and ask that the developers "stop work on the site and do not resume activities until each and every violation of the applicable laws and regulations has been remedied."

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Perry Fields, the developer of Emmanuel Church Estates, says the allegations against him are unfounded. "They just served notices of intent to sue on anybody they took a notion to," he says, "without due regard to finding out any facts or information to support their allegations."

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He also says the Georgia Center and Altamaha Riverkeeper "are going to get sued over it."

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"They bought themselves a parcel of trouble," Fields says. "The folks they are picking on aren't going to roll over and play dead."

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Holland hopes a legal victory against the two developers will set a precedent forcing the rest of the builders in the area to change their ways — and push local environmental inspectors to enforce existing laws.

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"The developers are the problem in general," Holland claims. "But the real problem is the government's lack of enforcement.

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"In my mind, we had no alternative."