The Georgia General Assembly closed shop April 2, and for Georgia’s environment, there was both good news and bad.
Topping the list of good news was the passage of House Bill 57 that will make it more affordable for homeowners to install solar panels.
Shifting our energy dependence away from coal to clean energy sources creates new jobs and ultimately helps our rivers. Yes, our rivers. For example, Plant Hammond — a coal-fired power plant on the Coosa River — is the single largest user of water in Northwest Georgia and its negative impacts on the Coosa have been far-reaching.
If you love Georgia’s coast, you’ll also be pleased with the passage of SB 101, a bill that restores a 25-foot “no-build zone,” or buffer, along Georgia’s coastal marshes.
This bill’s journey through the legislature is especially notable because it shows that citizen activists still make a difference in a political climate where money and well-heeled lobbyists too often rule the day.
As originally introduced, the marsh buffer bill included loopholes inserted at the request of a single lobbyist protecting the interests of wealthy clients on the Georgia coast.
The 200-plus member Georgia Water Coalition, including the Coosa River Basin Initiative, called out these loopholes, and many legislators agreed. Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, held the bill until the loopholes were removed, and a bill that truly protected the marshes passed. It was a victory for citizens (and our beautiful marshes) over special interests.
Likewise, plastic bag manufacturers had their proverbial backsides handed to them. When Tybee Island and Athens began considering bans on plastic bags to curb litter and protect wildlife, the plastic bag manufacturing association convinced some legislators to introduce a bill prohibiting local governments from passing laws banning or otherwise restricting use of plastic bags.
Again, citizen activists, including the GWC, raised their voices. The House of Representatives soundly defeated the measure.
Of course, plastic bags, on their own, are not the problem; it’s people that cause plastic bag pollution. But now at least, local governments might experiment with progressive measures to wean us off one-use, disposable bags and other containers.
Now, for the bad news…
SB 36, a bill aimed at protecting well water by restoring a long-standing moratorium on the controversial and dangerous practice of injecting surface water into underground wells, languished in committee. It was bottled up by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration that sees “aquifer storage and recovery” as a means of extending the state’s water supply — even at the risk of polluting pristine groundwater.
With HB 397, the Deal Administration also dismantled the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission.
The bill allows Gov. Deal to hand-pick a panel responsible for approving the “Green Book,” the state manual that dictates what kind of precautions developers must take to keep dirt from leaving construction sites and muddying our streams.
After signing the bill, he quickly made those appointments. They included a paving contractor, a Georgia Power executive and a Department of Transportation engineer — all representatives of the entities regulated by the Green Book. No members of Georgia’s environmental advocacy community got the nod.
Finally, HB 255 tops the cake. This bill — backed by the Georgia Forestry Association — makes it illegal for any state-funded construction project to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.
LEED-certified buildings save state taxpayers money through energy and water efficiency, but Georgia tree farmers have taken issue with LEED requirements to qualify as sustainable forest products. Their solution? Run the LEED program out of publicly-funded construction. Inexplicably, the bill passed.
Fallout from the 2015 legislative session, both good and bad, is proof that we need active and engaged citizens to protect our state’s natural resources and local communities.
Joe Cook is advocacy and communication director for the Coosa River Basin Initiative.