Several months ago, the Trump administration began its efforts to strip away long-standing clean water protections by proposing the suspension of standards under the Clean Water Act. The proposed 2-year suspension of the protections provided by the 2015 Clean Water Rule was the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ first step in a coordinated series of attacks. Conservation groups argued before the U.S. District Court in Charleston that the agencies illegally refused to explain their rationale for the suspension and denied meaningful public comment. The court agreed, adamantly rejecting the agencies’ approach.
The ruling ends the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ suspension of clean water protections under the Clean Water Act and puts the Clean Water Rule back in effect for more than half of the country. This ruling does not apply to 24 states where other legal challenges are pending, including Georgia. This win is important on its own, and perhaps even more so in preparation for impending efforts to permanently repeal the Clean Water Rule.
The Trump administration has already prepared a proposed rule that would degrade our rivers and streams that is expected to be released for public comment within the next two months. Under this proposal, which is backed by industrial polluters:
- Small streams that flow into Georgia’s rivers, drinking water reservoirs and eventually our coastal estuaries and waters would be made vulnerable to industrial pollution, putting drinking water for 53 percent of Georgia’s population at risk.
- Wetlands that absorb flood waters, improve water quality, support wildlife, and buffer our communities from hurricanes and storms would be at risk of fill and more pollution.
- Our drinking water supplies from the Upper Chattahoochee River, our favorite swimming holes along the Flint River, our North Georgia trout fishing streams, and so many other waters would be in jeopardy.
We can’t afford to let the Altamaha, St. Marys, Savannah, and Georgia’s other rivers become polluted. We have worked too hard to keep these waters clean, and we are prepared .
But it is not enough to strike the administration in court. Communities across the South are fighting against big polluters and bad politics to make sure that toxic pollution stays out of our waters and basic, long-lasting protections remain in place. Georgians must engage in concerted outreach efforts to enlighten our members and the public at large that we can’t take our cherished waters for granted.
Do you want to get involved in the defense of the US Clean Water Act? Contact Bill Sapp at SELC.
For decades, Georgia Power has stored toxic coal ash in ponds beside the rivers, lakes, and streams we depend on for drinking water and recreation. Under Federal regulations and a recent court decision, coal ash can no longer be stored in wet ponds. Closing down these leaky, unsafe ponds is a good first step for treating coal ash waste. Georgia Power plans to close all of its coal ash ponds by draining the water from the ponds and either covering up the ash in place or excavating it and moving it to dry, lined storage.
The excavated coal ash waste is being transported to lined landfills on Georgia Power’s property or to Municipal Solid Waste Landfills (MSWLs) across Georgia. Out-of-state utilities can also ship their coal ash to Georgia’s MSWLs, many of which are not designed to handle this toxic waste.
Now, thanks to a terrible provision snuck into legislation in the final days of the 2018 legislative session, Georgia Power has ensured that Georgia’s MSWLs will remain the Number One destination for out-of-state coal ash for at least the next seven years.
At the Georgia General Assembly in 2018, much-need legislation was introduced to increase “host fees,” which are fees paid to local governments in which MSWLs are located. The fees help local governments pay for services that mitigate the impacts that these large landfills may have on their communities. Georgia’s host fee has long been one of the lowest in the nation, stuck at $1 per ton of waste delivered to the landfill. House Bill 792 sought to raise the host fee to $2.50 to better reflect the costs incurred by these local governments in which MSWLs operate.
Unfortunately, Georgia Power decided it would not abide this increased fee, particularly while it is undertaking the largest consolidation and transfer of coal ash waste in state history. The utility frantically lobbied to freeze the fee increase so it would continue paying just $1 for coal ash waste sent to MSWLs. Georgia Power sought to delay the fee increase until after it has completed its efforts to close and consolidate its coal ash ponds and transfer millions of tons of the waste to MSWLs across Georgia.
However thanks to the United States Constitution, this kind of handout is only legal if it applies to all similarly situated entities across state lines. This means that Georgia’s abysmally low host fees would be frozen for allcoal ash waste shipments to Georgia landfills, whether the toxic sludge comes from Georgia or Florida or any other state. Thanks to its hold on our state legislators, Georgia Power succeeded: the host fee is frozen at $1 for all types of coal ash waste until 2025.
The message was received loud and clear: Georgia is the Southeast’s regional dumping ground for coal ash waste. We are sure to remain the cheapest option for utilities seeking to dispose of millions of tons of coal ash sludge well into the next decade.
There are currently six (6) MSWLs permitted by the State EPD to accept and store coal ash waste. These landfills are scattered across the state and situated along a variety of Georgia’s beautiful river basins.
- Cherokee County (Coosa River)
- Meriwether County (Chattahoochee River)
- Banks County (Savannah River)
- Taylor County (Flint River)
- Chatham County (Ogeechee River)
- Charlton County (St. Marys River)
These landfills are situated alongside streams and above vital groundwater aquifers that supply water to hundreds of thousands of Georgians. Current laws are insufficient to ensure that these landfills are capable of safely storing coal ash waste for the long-term. As such it is dangerous to consolidate high concentrations of Georgia Power’s toxic coal ash waste in these landfills. It is irresponsible and indefensible to pass laws that encourages other states beyond Georgia to ship their toxic coal ash waste into our communities.
Our elected officials must take legislative action to undo this egregious violation of the peoples’ trust. HB 792 sought to increase landfill host fees to allow local governments to mitigate the impacts these MSWLs have on their communities. Instead special interests hijacked the legislation and incentivized the shipment of millions of tons of out-of-state toxic waste into these counties.
When the 2019 session of the Georgia legislature convenes in January, the GWC Legislative Team will work to convince our state leaders to repeal the provision that gave Georgia Power and out-of-state waste generators this free pass to dump coal ash waste on Georgians.
Earlier this year at the Georgia Water Coalition’s Clean 13 Celebration, the work of Mark Masters was recognized for many contributions to water planning and conservation in Georgia, including his long-term efforts coordinating and supporting the work of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Stakeholders while they developed a water sharing agreement between diverse interests from Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
Since then, the ideas espoused by ACF Stakeholders and highlighted by GWC in the 2017 Clean 13 Report have gained the attention of the Supreme Court.
In June 2018, the high court sent the Florida v. Georgia case back to a special master for further deliberations.
In doing so the justices affirmed several ACF Stakeholders recommendations. The court has an expectation that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will not simply sit on the sidelines, and that the health of the river ecosystem can be considered along with concerns over uses like drinking water or irrigation for agriculture.
During the court proceedings overseen by Special Master Ralph Lancaster in fall of 2016, he repeatedly referenced the ACF Stakeholders Sustainable Water Management Plan (SWMP) and questioned numerous witnesses about the plan.
In August 2018, the Supreme Court appointed federal appellate court judge Paul J. Kelly, Jr. as the new special master in the case. While it remains to be seen whether Judge Kelly will lean on the SWMP as did special master Lancaster, it appears the ACF Stakeholders recommendations are reaching as far as Washington D.C. In recognition of the hard work and diligence of this stakeholders group, the GWC is honoring them as a recipient of our 2018 Clean 13 award.
Since 2011, Georgia’s taxpayers have paid NEARLY $50 million in legal fees for water wars litigation. The ACF Stakeholders SWMP, produced at a cost of $1.7 million, provides a road map for solving the dispute without additional, costly litigation. The 2018 GWC Clean 13 Report was released on September 19th. To download a copy and read about all of the 2018 Clean 13 Awardees click here.