Each year, the Georgia Water Coalition publishes its “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the major sources of pollution statewide that affect waterways. But this year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, something different was presented.
The organization concluded its annual tradition by highlighting the 12 largest pollution events in Georgia’s recent history, which were successfully addressed thanks to the passage of the landmark Environmental Law.
For the full report, with summaries of each case, see bit.ly/3VG01th.
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The Georgia Water Coalition is a consortium of more than 285 organizations, businesses, and religious groups working together to promote statewide water policies that ensure enough clean water for present and future generations.
“Across the state, pollution from municipal, industrial and agricultural activities poses a constant threat to our rivers, lakes and wetlands,” said Joe Cook of the Georgia River Network. “Water pollution continues to have an adverse and disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income.”
The lawsuits, one of which stretched all the way to the US Supreme Court in Upstate Forever and Savannah Riverkeeper v. Kinder Morgan, enforced protection of the environment by halting or renegotiating development, improving compliance and enforcement, and addressing wastewater, Sediments and other sources of contaminants entering water bodies.
For one participant, the Clean Water Act was a catalyst for lifelong conservation work.
“When we went to the (Georgia Environmental Protection Division) they said we were the only ones complaining,” says Linda Smith.
In the 1990s, she and her family had seen the beloved waters of the Canoochee River next to her home overgrown with algae and pollution from runoff from the nearby Claxton Poultry chicken processing plant upstream.
Complaints weren’t well received by the agency, Smith said, so she and her sister Sylvia got to work documenting the extent of the pollution.
EPD investigations revealed that the poultry factory had sprayed sewage onto fields that emptied into the river.
In 2000, the sisters filed a lawsuit against the company under the Clean Water Act. Part of the settlement was that Claxton Poultry funded a riverkeeper organization for the Canoochee River for five years, which today has evolved into the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
“What struck me most about all the cases included in the Dirty Dozen report this year is that in most of these cases, the citizens are the ones making the complaints or filing the lawsuits and setting things right leave,” said Georgia River Network’s Cook.
He said citizens are also at the heart of pollution response and should continue to play an important role.
More work to do
While the Clean Water Act has resulted in environmental gains across the state, there are a number of new challenges that remain to be addressed.
All of these sources of pollution are occurring amid a dissolution of wetland protection since the Trump administration.
Rena Peck, director of the Georgia River Network, said the Georgia Water Coalition is asking the state Environmental Protection Department to deny permit applications to prevent mining development in the Okefenokee Swamp.
While the area had previously received federal protection, it is now only protected at the state level. They’re also looking for lawmakers to pass policies to permanently protect North America’s largest blackwater swamp.
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Another area where the redefinition and shrinking of wetland protection has occurred is in excessive debris runoff, similar to the US v. Wright Brothers Construction & GDOT case. Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said her organization is working on a similar problem near Lake Burton.
“Except this time, there are a lot more questions about the incoming streams and whether they actually deserve regulation,” Bonitatibus said.
Bonitatibus said another challenge for water conservationists is the lack of regulation of soil amendments, industrial waste brought ashore as an alternative to fertilizer.
Finally, the group also called on the EPD to require Georgia Power to excavate coal ash — the residue left from burning coal — from its unlined ash ponds, which are now polluting groundwater, and place them in dry-lined ponds.
Looking ahead, the organizations said the Clean Water Act is still an effective tool to correct pollution in the state. When it comes to addressing these issues, Peck, Bonitatibus, and former longtime EPD contributor Bert Langley say one of the biggest obstacles is EPD funding.
“The EPD has always had to do our best to prioritize those who are getting our biggest bang for the buck,” Langley said.
Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (912) 328-4411.