At CRBI, we are often asked if our rivers and streams are cleaner than they used to be. The answer to that question is a resounding “YES!” By and large, municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities have dramatically reduced the pollution they put in the Coosa and the streams that feed it.
But, we’ve still got a long way to go to restore our rivers to a semblance of what they once were.
The Rome New-Tribune’s recent reporting of pollution problems on the Coosa is a prime example of how our state’s failure to prioritize clean water programs has resulted in decades of delays in restoring our river.
Consider this: In 2017, Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly passed a budget that included $30.5 million for the state’s lead water protection agency, the Environmental Protection Division. That’s $500,000 less than it did in 2005. Adjusted for inflation, EPD got 25 percent less from lawmakers in 2017 than they did in 2005 while the state enjoyed billions more in revenue over 2005.
Whatever the reasons for the belt-tightening, the results have been felt in Coosa River communities from Cartersville to Centre, Alabama.
Around 2005, EPD agreed to conduct an extensive study on pollution in the Coosa to determine what steps Georgia Power Company, International Paper, the City of Rome and others discharging pollution to the river would have to take to keep the river healthy.
Data collection was to feed computer models that would give us the facts needed to keep the river clean and healthy. Millions of dollars in pollution control upgrades at facilities up and down the Coosa, Etowah and Oostanaula hung on the outcome of these models. Originally, EPD hoped to have the work completed around 2010. Seven years later, the models have still not been completed.
Why? Simple. Lack of funding and lack of staff at EPD. As reported recently in the Rome News-Tribune, now International Paper has volunteered to pay for the models that EPD never did. It will cost the company about $300,000.
And, while EPD has assured us that they will have oversight and that the models can’t be tweaked to result in favorable outcomes for International Paper, the permit holder should not have to conduct this type of modeling in the first place.
To make a bad situation worse, EPDs failure to conduct this long-awaited computer modeling is now forcing them to provide International Paper with another seven years to complete the studies, upgrade pollution controls and finally reduce the pollutants it discharges to the river. Though EPD knew that discharges from International Paper were harming the river in 2004, the Coosa may not see relief until 2024.
While EPD is supposed to review and update pollution control permits every five years, the last time it issued International Paper’s permit was in 1997.
This is also true at Plant Hammond where the permit was last reviewed in 2007. The City of Rome still operates under a pollution control permit issued in 2005; the City of Cartersville operates under a 2000 permit.
Reducing pollution discharged from all of these facilities has been delayed for years because of EPD’s failure to do its job. Ask any wastewater treatment operator in the area, and they will tell you they are as frustrated as we are at CRBI.
Had EPD been given the resources to do its job, we’d already be on our way to a healthier Coosa — not still waiting for important pollution controls to be implemented.
Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman is the executive director of Coosa River Basin Initiative.