Polluters on loose in Georgia

U.S. District Court Judge Orinda Evans recently levied a stiff penalty on an industrial polluter, sending a strong message to other polluters.Judge Evans required American Sealcoat Manufacturing, an industrial operator in south Fulton County, to pay a $10 million penalty for illegally dumping toxins into the Chattahoochee River. This order resulted from a lawsuit filed by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which discovered and reported the illegal dumping.

A larger question looms: Why do we still have pollution problems like this today?

In 2014, Riverkeeper’s tracking team discovered oily black sludge seeping from a storm drain and into a small tributary less than 300 yards from the Chattahoochee. Our team traced the chemicals to Sealcoat, an asphalt sealant manufacturer. Operating without an industrial storm water permit in clear violation of the Clean Water Act, Sealcoat was repeatedly and intentionally dumping toxic waste down a nearby storm drain.

We contacted the company and offered assistance to clean up the site and help it comply with clean water laws. At our first meeting, a company representative appeared to be receptive to our concerns. But during a follow-up visit, we observed the company dumping large volumes of an oily liquid directly into the creek. It became crystal clear Sealcoat had no intention of complying with the law and stopping the pollution.

Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit to force Sealcoat to stop the illegal dumping. After a short legal fight, Sealcoat shut down its operations and skipped town, leaving behind a toxic dump site that continues to pollute the Chattahoochee.

Riverkeeper contacted the owner-landlord of the property, M&K Warehouses, which allowed Sealcoat to continue operating on its land after being notified of the violations and Sealcoat’s continuing illegal discharges. Again, Riverkeeper had no choice but to pursue legal action.

The two cases had been going through legal processes concurrently until Judge Evans issued her judgment against Sealcoat last week. However, the toxic dump site continues to threaten public health and fish and wildlife that depend on the river.

Unfortunately, American Sealcoat is one of many industrial facilities across the state operating without safeguards to keep pollution out of neighborhoods and our state’s rivers and streams. While Georgia law requires these safeguards, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, which is charged with enforcing these laws, is woefully understaffed to keep tabs on thousands of facilities statewide.

EPD has only two staff members assigned to manage more than 2,700 permitted facilities statewide, which doesn’t include hundreds of facilities like Sealcoat operating without permits. When it rains across metro Atlanta, more than rainwater is flowing into the Chattahoochee. A filthy stormwater brew flows along with the runoff into streams that feed the region’s primary drinking water source.

For years, EPD has lacked the resources to adequately do its job. Cases like Sealcoat are the result. The General Assembly must provide EPD with the necessary funding to protect our waterways and our public health. Water protection must become a greater priority for the agency and its board. Otherwise, pollution problems will continue.

Jason Ulseth is Riverkeeper at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

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