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GUEST COLUMN: Welcome to our world, Senator Josh McKoon

Joe Cook

In vetoing the controversial “religious freedom” bill this past week, Gov. Nathan Deal sided once again with the most powerful force in Georgia politics — business.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Josh McKoon, responded on Atlanta’s WABE Radio saying, “If we’re going to allow a handful of business executives largely from outside of our state to dictate public policy, I mean, I would argue we could do away with the kind of quaint elections that we have. We may as well just auction off seats in the legislature.”

My response: “Welcome to our world, Senator McKoon.”

When it comes to protecting Georgia’s environment, at the Georgia Capitol it seems big business always has the last say. Time and time again, common sense measures that protect our water, our communities and our use and enjoyment of our private and public lands fail because of opposition from powerful business interests that have the ear of the governor and many of our legislators.

We live in a state where “environment” and “protection” are four-letter words.

While this year’s session provided some surprising votes to protect Georgia’s water and land as well as property owners, the most important environmental legislation never even made it to the chambers for a vote. Here’s a look at the good, bad and ugly.

The good

Georgia’s legislators took a stand against the use of eminent domain by petroleum and natural gas pipeline companies and for protecting our water. First, they passed House Bill 1036, a measure that puts a temporary moratorium on the construction of the controversial Palmetto petroleum pipeline through coastal Georgia.

Then, in a highly animated debate in the House, Republican representatives, in a mini-revolt, bucked Gov. Deal and removed state property easements for the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline through southwest Georgia from a routine resolution (Senate Resolution 954) conveying easements on public land to private companies.

In this case, the easements would have put the pipeline builders one step closer to using eminent domain to take private property and build their gas line through a region susceptible to sinkholes. A spill, leak or explosion along the line could pollute drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Georgians.

The bad

A simple measure to clarify Georgia’s stream buffer laws and another measure to fill gaps in protections of Georgia’s groundwater never saw the light of day.

Existing Georgia law says that all of the state’s streams must be protected by a natural buffer — or no-build zone — to protect our water and downstream property owners. Unfortunately, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division does not enforce this law in certain situations. HB 966 would have corrected this problem. Following instructions from on high, the House Natural Resources Committee chairperson, Rep. Lynn Smith, kept the bill bottled up in committee.

SB 36, a bill to fix gaps in groundwater protection laws, met a similar fate in Rep. Smith’s committee. How wide are the gaps? Right now, an oil company could frack for natural gas in Georgia without ever revealing what chemicals it is injecting in the ground and without any requirements to monitor groundwater to ensure their work is not contaminating nearby well water.

The ugly

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the session was the failure of HR 502. This resolution would have put an end to the annual looting of so-called “fee for service” programs. Each year, Georgians pay millions in fees that go into the state’s general fund where state leaders are supposed to allocate that money to fund things like public defenders, drivers education programs and clean-ups of illegal tire dumps or leaking landfills. But, year after year, these programs that legislators promised would be funded through these fees get shortchanged.

For instance, since 2005, nearly $140 million that was supposed to be used to clean up illegal tire dumps and other sites contaminated with hazardous waste has been used to fund other portions of the state budget. In the private sector that’s fraud and lands you in jail, but in state government it’s business as usual.

Next year, with a new legislative body, we’ll hope we can correct this year’s failures. But it will be an uphill climb because when it comes to Georgia’s General Assembly under the Deal administration, it will likely be business as usual.

Joe Cook is advocacy and communication director for the Coosa River Basin Initiative.