Georgia’s new Dirty Dozen update sheds light on the power of the Clean Water Act to curb polluters

When Linda Smith’s childhood swimming hole on the Canoochee River became polluted more than two decades ago, she began documenting the damage with a bulky camcorder and educating herself on federal environmental protection.

Initially, Smith says, her family struggled to draw attention to the muddy algal blooms floating on the surface of the blackwater stream that stretches across rural southeast Georgia.

“When we went to the EPD to file a complaint, they said you’re the only one complaining,” Smith said, referring to the state Environmental Protection Department.

But that all changed in 2000, when the Smith family filed a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act, which ultimately led to changes in how a local poultry processing plant disposed of its waste and the creation of a nonprofit organization that focused on protecting the river from pollution.

The Smith family’s successful legal challenge was one of a dozen legal moves highlighted in a new report marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, which is now the focus of a year-long debate over which waterways should be covered by the federal law – including wetlands near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Smith attended a virtual press conference Tuesday to unveil the Georgia Water Coalition’s yearbook Report on the dirty dozenwhich the group says is set to outline landmark legal cases in Georgia this year that have resulted in significant restoration of the state’s waterways since 1972.

“We have such a powerful tool in the Clean Water Act,” said Joe Cook of the Georgia River Network. “And we must continue to protect this Clean Water Act and make sure it exists so that citizens (and advocacy groups) can continue to help citizens right wrongs.

“The power of the Clean Water Act rests with the citizens,” Cook said.

Chandra Brown, a former Ogeechee-Canoochee River Warden, called the Clean Water Act “a uniquely American law” with a provision empowering property owners like Linda Smith to take polluters to court.

“That’s literally the goal of the Clean Water Act,” Brown said. “To allow citizens to intervene when the government doesn’t enforce the law.”

Other cases highlighted in the report include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rare use of its veto power to halt a recreational reservoir in Bacon County over the project’s threat to wildlife, and a lawsuit that resulted in the city of Atlanta being fined $2 billion -Dollar invested its sewage and drinking water infrastructure to clean up the Chattahoochee River, once derided as an “open sewer” downstream.

The report also outlined what proponents see as the top environmental threats in Georgia, including a proposed mining project near the Okefenokee swamp.

Wetlands at the site lost federal protection following the Trump-era definition of a navigable waterway. Without federal oversight, state regulators will decide whether to approve an Alabama company’s plans to mine near the swamp.

“If the Clean Water Act can’t protect the Okefenokee Swamp, what can we protect?” said Rena Ann Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network.

Two other key environmental concerns were highlighted in the report: Georgia Power’s plans to leave behind toxins Coal ash in unlined pits at a handful of power plants across the state and illicit discharges from land application systems that spray partially treated wastewater onto land.

“The progress made since then in cleaning up Georgia’s water has been remarkable, but we still have work to do to clean up all of the state’s water bodies swimmable and fishable,” Cook said.