Measure a huge step backward

Four major spills in our state’s waters have killed tens of thousands of fish and threatened public drinking water supplies in the past two years — two in the Oconee River Basin and one each in the Savannah River Basin and the Ogeechee River.

In each emergency, local residents looked to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to respond quickly to limit any harm that could result, notify the public of any public health threats and follow enforcement measures commensurate to the spill’s cause.

Of the four spills, the worst occurred on the Ogeechee River in May 2011, when a regulated chemical killed approximately 38,000 fish. EPD failed to warn the public of the immediate dangers from that illegal discharge by King America Finishing Co.

An investigation following the disaster revealed that for more than five years, the facility had been illegally discharging from unpermitted outfalls, even though EPD had inspected the facility repeatedly.

Residents were shocked to learn that instead of a fine commensurate with the violations — in the range of $90 million — the company was required to spend $1 million in improvements to public access and other unrelated projects.

In the months that followed, outrage over EPD’s poor handling of the emergency grew. The Georgia Water Coalition listed the Ogeechee spill as No. 1 on its list of the “dirty dozen,” the year’s worst offenses against state waters.

The Ogeechee legislative delegation, led by Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, proposed that EPD require third-party monitoring in the river and improvements to the agency’s emergency response timing. They offered to help the EPD accomplish these and other goals.

Still, many of our state’s legislators have failed to heed the warning of the Ogeechee River disaster.

Led by Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove, Sens. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega; Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville; Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton; Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro; and Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, appear to be trying to weaken the laws that direct the EPD director to protect our most valuable natural resource — clean water.

Senate Bill 269, which they introduced and which has already passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee, would allow EPD to negotiate with known violators of federal and state clean water laws, including large industrial dischargers, to take voluntary action to fix their problems, instead of requiring mandatory corrective action.

The bill also allows EPD to grant an indefinite number of six-month extensions to fix the problems without limit, thereby allowing continued pollution of our water. Further, the bill does not restrict the EPD director from issuing these voluntary orders even in times of emergency, where there is a threat to public health, public or private drinking water supplies, or fish and wildlife.

Senate Bill 269 represents a huge step backward. In the face of recent environmental disasters, this bill diminishes the EPD director’s responsibility, rather than ensuring the director must issue clear and timely orders for mandatory corrective action without endless extensions for compliance.

Circumstances that pose a threat to public health, drinking water supplies and fish and wildlife, require and deserve an immediate response.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp lives in Emanuel County.