Report: These are the 12 biggest environmental threats in Georgia

The Chattahoochee River is visible on a cloudy day from the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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The Chattahoochee River is visible on a cloudy day from the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Coalition report details five returning pollution concerns, plus several new threats

A forthcoming plastic recycling plant, airport fuel spills and the growing danger of climate change-fueled disasters.

Those are among the seven new concerns detailed in the 2021 “Dirty Dozen” report, released Tuesday by the Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of more than 250 environmental organizations from around the state. This is the 11th edition of the report, which outlines what the coalition says are the 12 greatest threats to the health of the waterways and citizens of Georgia.

Among the possible dangers identified by the coalition is a massive plastic recycling plant slated to be constructed near Macon. The proposed plant is being built by a San Francisco-based company called Brightmark, which plans to convert huge amounts of plastic into diesel fuel and other chemicals. Eventually, the company says, it plans to turn plastic waste headed for landfills into new plastic.

But the report raises questions about whether Brightmark’s recycling process is as environmentally friendly as it sounds. By turning plastics into fuels that will be burned, sending more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, the facility will only accelerate climate change and entrench society’s dependence on plastics, the report says.

The issue of climate change is featured for the first time in the report. As rising temperatures increase the odds of damaging coastal and inland flooding, dangerous heat waves and intense droughts, the state of Georgia is ill-prepared to address a host of growing threats, according to the report.

“We’re putting it on this year’s report because our elected officials have been mostly silent and inactive on this problem,” said Joe Cook, a coordinator with Georgia River Network and the author of the report.

A series of recent fuel spills at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also led the coalition to add the Flint River to its list of threatened waterways this year. The river’s headwaters lie just north of the airport and a series of pipes and culverts actually channel it underneath some of the runways. Earlier this year, a fuel spill at the airport sent at least 1,300 gallons of fuel into the river, leading to fish kills and water quality concerns downstream.

Other new additions in this year’s report include:

  • The harmful algal blooms that have plagued the Chattahoochee River and other waterways. Earlier this year, a family dog died after its owner said it swam in Roswell’s Bull Sluice lake, which is fed by the Chattahoochee.
  • So-called “forever chemicals” produced by manufacturers along the Conasauga and Oostanaula rivers in northwest Georgia, which have raised concerns about water quality in communities downstream.
  • Sediment pollution that is choking Whitewater Creek in Fayette County, which the report ties to a new movie studio development in the area.
  • A fight that’s brewing in Gordon County between local residents and chicken farmers.

Making a return on this year’s report is the Okefenokee Swamp, which scientists and environmental advocates say is threatened by a proposed mine that will extract titanium just miles from the swamp’s edge.

The last piece of the hulking Golden Ray cargo ship was removed from the waters off of St. Simon’s island earlier this year. But the report says there are lingering environmental concerns, which is why the disaster landed in the “Dirty Dozen” once again.

Pollution stemming from a 30-year-old Superfund site near Brunswick and a textile plant in Screven County are also back on the list.

And finally, coal ash made its sixth consecutive appearance in the report. The authors say the pollutant, which is stored in huge ponds across the state and laden with dangerous heavy metals, poses a threat to major waterways like the Chattahoochee and Ocmulgee rivers.