Georgia Environmental Protection Division gets greenlight to gut statewide water quality protections

Today the state's Department of Natural Resources Board discussed the Environmental Protection Division’s proposed changes to Georgia water quality standards during its meeting at the Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, Georgia. The board's decision to allow the changes to go out for draft rulemaking gives Georgians 45 days to submit public comments.  (© Jen Hilburn/Altamaha Riverkeeper)

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has gotten approval to move forward with rollbacks to state water quality protections, that favor industrial polluters over the health of statewide waterways.

The Board of Natural Resources decided today to publish notice of the draft rulemaking on EPD’s proposed changes to Georgia narrative water quality standards for public comment. The 45-day comment period will be followed by a public meeting. 

It is incredibly disappointing that the Environmental Protection Division is moving ahead with changes that may seem minor, but that actually roll back essential safeguards intended to protect Georgia’s waters across the entire state,” said Hutton Brown, SELC Senior Attorney. “Giving industrial polluters an additional loophole is the antithesis of acting in the public interest. All Georgians will be impacted by these changes that put our rivers, streams, and creeks in harm’s way.”

Last month, EPD proposed amendments to Georgia narrative water quality standards that would fundamentally change the protections, without stakeholder involvement. The standards language previously read: 

"All waters shall be free from material related to municipal, industrial or other discharges which produce turbidity, color, odor or other objectionable conditions which interfere with legitimate water uses.” 

In a letter to the Board of Natural Resources on November 21, EPD requested approval for changes in language that, while seemingly benign, would substantially narrow the interpretation of statewide water protections and give citizens less protection:

"All waters shall be free from material related to municipal, industrial or other discharges which produce turbidity, color, odor or other objectionable conditions which [unreasonably] interfere with [designated] water uses.” 

Changing “legitimate” to “designated” would limit activities that are currently protected under Georgia law, while the insertion of “unreasonably” would give industrial polluters an additional loophole to weaken citizen enforcement suits.

In the case of one of the state’s worst industrial polluters, Rayonier Advanced Materials, the Altamaha River is designated primarily for “fishing” so activities like swimming, boating, and paddling would no longer be protected. This directly contradicts EPD witness testimony during the June 2016 state court trial that agency witnesses viewed “legitimate” uses as much broader than “designated.” 

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