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State attempts to weaken water pollution rules

The state Environmental Protection Division wants to relax one of the rules that governs the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the state's waterways.

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The proposed change will eliminate a phrase in Georgia's environmental regulations that calls for companies and municipalities to use the "highest and best" technologies to reduce water pollution. If approved, the change would allow more toxins to be dumped into rivers and lakes by polluters such as paper manufacturers and sewage treatment plants.

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In February, EPD Assistant Director David Word asked the board of the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the EPD, to change the rule in order to give industries and the government more leeway.

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On Aug. 23, rule-change opponents such as the Georgia Conservancy and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper voiced opposition to members of the DNR board. The full board is scheduled to vote next month on the change.

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The proposed change is the latest in a series of EPD actions criticized by environmentalists. In 2003, the EPD proposed a rule change that would lower the standards on mercury pollution in waterways. The DNR board blocked the change — but only after an outpouring of citizens' comments. The year before, the EPD and the DNR board rejected a proposal that would've required companies to display their name next to discharge pipes on waterways.

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The recent rule-change brouhaha was spurred by a lengthy legal battle between Gwinnett County and the Lake Lanier Homeowner's Association. In 2000, the county was expanding a sewage treatment plant near the lake, and neighbors protested the plant's allegedly lax pollution controls.

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Lawsuits filed by the homeowners forced the county to instead build a $750 million, state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, capable of discharging the cleanest treated sewage in the state. The plant is scheduled to be completed in 2006.

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But in 2004, the EPD issued the plant a permit allowing the facility to treat sewage at a level far lower than it's capable of.

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Homeowners again sued. Last November, the state Supreme Court sided with them, and a stronger permit for the plant currently is under consideration by the EPD.

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In the meantime, however, the EPD's Word suggested relaxing the water quality rule, thereby circumventing the Supreme Court ruling.

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Lake Lanier Homeowner's Association President Jackie Joseph says the EPD "wants to go with language that's not as protective of the lake, and that will degrade the quality of the water in Lake Lanier and water all over the state."

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The board of the Department of Natural Resources will discuss the rule change at its next meeting on Sept. 28. Details of the meeting, which is open to the public, can be found at gadnr.org.



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