While no local businesses or landowners were named among the 13 worst water pollution offenders, as compiled by the Georgia Water Coalition, the annual report highlighted several ongoing concerns for those who advocate on behalf of clean water in the state.
Coal ash disposal, the lack of action to protect stream buffers and the diversion of funds from state trust funds that are intended to support local clean community efforts are all addressed in the 2018 Dirty Dozen report.
Longtime local Coosa River Basin Initiative leader Joe Cook said the latter issue is one that really gets his blood boiling. The state has diverted millions from the hazardous waste and solid waste trust funds since grants were given to help Floyd County fund a code enforcement officer to investigate illegal dumping.
Floyd County Police Chief Mark Wallace said the position has been funded locally in recent years and has been expanded to a pair of officers — Mike Studdard and James Hinkley. Wallace said he is not sure if the county will continue to fund both positions after Studdard retires at the end of the year.
The report claims that in the most recent fiscal year, Georgians paid in more than $21 million to these funds — but legislators provided only $6.8 million for intended programs to help clean up local environments.
The report alleges that House Bill 792 may soon be cheaper to dump toxic coal ash in some Georgia landfills than it is to dump ordinary household trash in those same landfills.
The legislation, provides that beginning next July, local governments will be able to charge private landfill operators $2.50 for every ton of household garbage collected, but only $1 per ton for coal ash. The report reads "with some eight million tons to dispose of at local landfills, translates into a potential $12 million windfall for Georgia Power."
A landfill in Cherokee County is one of a handful permitted to accept coal ash. The potential that landfill could take even more leads to problems for the Etowah River, the report stated. Up to now the landfill in Cherokee County has not accepted any coal ash, Cook said, but it certainly could.
The Dirty Dozen list also takes the Georgia General Assembly to task for failing to fix the language in stream buffer laws that would further protect more than 70,150 miles of streams and rivers across the state.
Erosion and sedimentation are among the leading threats to water quality all over the state, Cook said.
Georgia bans land disturbance within 25 feet of warm water streams and 50 feet of North Georgia’s cold water streams, which are home to much of the state’s trout population.
The ban is measured from a point of “wrested vegetation” — the place along the stream bank where the flow of the water prevents plants from growing. The Georgia Supreme Court determined in a 2015 case there are many places along Georgia streams where this line of “wrested vegetation” cannot be easily identified thus making it difficult for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to enforce the rule.
At the heart of the conflict is the age old issue of property rights. Some landowners argue that enforcement of the buffer amounts to the taking of land. However the Dirty Dozen report argues that when property owners sell land, they are highly likely to benefit from the buffers which protect water quality that can be attractive to buyers.
Riverview Farm in Ranger, owned by the Swancy family, was honored by the Georgia Water Coalition Clean 13 report earlier this year for its voluntary efforts to enforce stream buffers along the Coosawattee River which flows into the Oostanaula.
The family has been proactive in keeping cattle and hog operations a safe distance from the river to keep waste and sedimentation from impacting water quality.