Final Legislative Update 2020

Final Legislative Update
July 10, 2020

Unusual Legislative Session Yields Great Victories for Georgia’s Environment

On June 26, the Georgia General Assembly completed the 2019-2020 legislative term—bringing to an end the strangest session in memory. Despite the challenges of steep budget cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been one of the most successful terms for protecting Georgia’s environment since the Georgia Water Coalition began its work nearly 20 years ago. The tireless efforts of GWC’s lobbyists, advocates and members are a big part of the reason for this success.Thank you to each and every member for your emails, texts and calls to and visits with legislators throughout the session. And special thanks to GWC’s lobbyists who returned to the Gold Dome in the midst of a pandemic to advocate for us all.

If your organization would like to join the GWC legislative team please contact Kevin Jeselnik   

Trust Funds on the November Ballot -Vote YES!

The Trust Fund resolution passed! GWC has worked for more than a decade to advance this constitutional amendment to restore honesty in our state government. Over the years, the state has raided “trust funds” like the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste funds that allow state and local governments to address tire dumps, repair problems at landfills and remediate hazardous waste sites. HR 164 allows Georgia voters to amend our state constitution and require that fees collected for these purposes go to the trust funds. This November, vote YES to restore the trust in trust funds. 

The constitutional amendment will allow the General Assembly to require that government collected fees – like the $1/scrap tire fee – are used for their stated purpose.  

The ballot question will read: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize the General Assembly to dedicate revenues derived from fees or taxes to the public purpose for which such fees or taxes were intended?”

If you’re interested in helping to ensure that Georgia votes a resounding YES! to dedicate trust funds, please contact Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman

Coal Ash Legislation Passes!

In 2020, Georgia passed its first law addressing the threats posed by the long-term storage of toxic coal ash. We should celebrate this victory while recognizing that much more must be done to address the planned permanent storage of this dangerous waste in unlined pits alongside a number of Georgia’s rivers. We need a law that requires excavation and disposal of toxic coal ash in permitted, lined landfills away from our groundwater and surface water resources. 

SB 123 (Sen. William Ligon) passed the House on June 23 by a vote of 142-15, and due to minor amendments changing the effective date, received final agreement by the Senate on June 24 (39-9). 

SB 123 closes a coal ash loophole that currently encourages out-of-state coal ash dumping in Georgia’s solid waste landfills. The bill would raise the surcharge that local governments can charge per ton of coal ash from $1 to $2.50, in line with the surcharge on regular household garbage.

An amendment to the bill added tangentially related language that restores the full fees paid by Georgians into the Solid and Hazardous Waste Trust Funds. Thanks to the passage of HR 164 in March, we are supportive of restoring these fees, and will be calling on all Georgians to pass the constitutional amendment in November that will ensure these fees are exclusively spent on programs for which they are collected.

While it crossed over to the Senate and was voted out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, HB 93(Rep. Rick Williams) ultimately failed to move out of Senate Rules and get to the floor for a vote.  HB 929, which would have required long-term monitoring of groundwater around coal ash ponds, failed to receive a vote out of Senate Natural Resources.

Read more about coal ash in Georgia Water Coalition’s press release.

Contact: Jennette Gayer, Environment Georgia

Final Push to Stop Rollback of Georgia’s Right to Farm Law

GWC is celebrating the non-passage of HB 545, which would have eliminated existing protections offered to farmers and rural property owners under existing Right to Farm Law. Following a last minute Senate floor amendment that mitigated some of its most damaging provisions, the bill passed the Senate with just enough yes votes to move back to the House. Fortunately, the House declined to act on the bill and it failed to pass on Sine Die. You can read the bill as amended here. 

Legislators in both parties recognized the significant ways this bill diminished property rights among long-time Georgia property owners. There is no good reason to eliminate the existing law, and certainly no need to alter statute of limitations for nuisance lawsuits in a way that encourages and protects new large-scale industrial livestock operations to the detriment of existing farmers and property owners and potentially our creeks and rivers.

We expect this attack on rural property rights will return in 2021 and GWC will continue to oppose these efforts to strip existing rights from our local farmers and rural neighbors.

Contact: Gordon Rogers, Flint Riverkeeper

Satilla River Protection Bill Fails To Move

Thanks in large part to grassroots efforts by coastal Georgians, SB 384 was voted out of the House Natural Resources Committee on June 25. Unfortunately the bill ultimately stalled in House Rules and did not make it to the House floor for a vote. 

Sen. William Ligon introduced SB 384 which would prohibit any new landfills within 3 miles of coastal blackwater rivers, including the Satilla River. This bill is a necessary step to recognize Georgia’s blackwater rivers as vital areas of the state, and GWC hopes it will be revived and enjoy similar bipartisan support in 2021.Learn more here.

Contact: Laura Early, Satilla Riverkeeper

Member Spotlight – Satilla Riverkeeper fights proposed landfill in Brantley County

A group of private investors, Brantley County Development Partners, LLC is trying to build a solid waste handling facility near the Satilla River in Brantley County. The proposed 463-acre site is covered in wetlands, and the surrounding areas are prone to flooding. The proposed site backs up to a residential neighborhood and sits between two elementary schools.

The proposed project risks contaminating groundwater, as the groundwater table is only one foot below the ground surface in some places. Other risks include surface water contamination from runoff from the site and increased flooding of surrounding properties. There has been extraordinary opposition to this proposed landfill from local residents and Satilla River enthusiasts from around the state.

The Brantley County Development Partners, LLC applied for a solid waste handling permit in 2016. In December 2019, the Environmental Protect Division (EPD) released Draft Site Limitations for public review and comment. The draft was inconsistent with local limitations set forth in Brantley County’s Solid Waste Management Plan, and EPD and the applicant failed to accurately account for private drinking water wells that surround the proposed site.

Satilla Riverkeeper and a local grassroots group, “Don’t Trash Brantley,” helped empower local citizens to voice their concerns and provide additional information to EPD. Over 9,500 public comments were submitted to EPD on the Draft Site Limitations. Despite all of this, EPD finalized the site limitations without adequately addressing the public’s concerns in a Site Suitability Notice on May 28, 2020.

This year, Senator William Ligon (White Oak) introduced a bill that would prevent any new landfills within 3 miles of blackwater rivers entirely within the coastal plain of Georgia. Residents from Brantley County and concerned voices from across the state spoke up loudly and passionately in support of this bill. Thousands of emails and phone calls reached representatives, and it seemed the only opposition to the bill was from the investors endeavoring to build the landfill in Brantley County. The bill passed the Senate, but got stuck in the Rules Committee in the final day of the legislative session in July.

The fight is not over yet, and there is still opportunity to prevent this poorly sited proposal, and Satilla Riverkeeper is continuing to address the issue from every possible angle.

Additional information and opportunities to take action:

Save the Okefenokee Swamp

SAVE THE SWAMP – GWC works to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from mining.

In recent months, concerned citizens have given the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers close to 60,000 reasons to deny Twin Pines Minerals, LLC (Twin Pines) rights to dig for titanium on portions of a 12,000-acre site near the Okefenokee Swamp and adjacent to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. That’s the number of letters that the Corps has received during two public comment periods, and many of these were marshalled by GWC members.

This is not the first time citizens have fought proposals to mine near the Swamp. In the 1990s, DuPont moved to mine for titanium in the area, but public outcry forced the company to abandon its plans.

GWC members are asking the Corps to deny the permit or at the very least require additional studies to determine the true cost of the mine on the swamp and the economy of the region, a process that results in a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.  

Twin Pines has scaled back its original application for a wetlands permit and is now seeking permission to conduct a “demonstration project” phase of mining that would initially impact 898 acres.  The size still matters, because of its location on Trail Ridge which serves as a geological dam impounding the swamp.

If mining takes place on the full 12,000-acre site, we could see activity within 400 feet of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. And the swamp wetlands extend beyond the Refuge onto the ridge itself. With the average depth of the water in the swamp being only two feet, there’s not  much room for error.

Drawing down water levels could impact the 120 miles of canoe trails in the swamp and the more than 600,000 visitors that visit the swamp annually.

In addition to local advocates speaking out against the proposed mine, the Corps must also consider input from federal agencies. Those agencies have thus far not viewed the proposal favorably. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has told the Corps that  mining could “have a substantial and unacceptable impact” on the Okefenokee Swamp; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service warned that damage to the Swamp “may be permanent.”

Georgia Water Coalition Anti-Racism Statement

“The Georgia Water Coalition is a group of over 250 organizations, businesses, and community groups who have come together around the mission to protect and care for Georgia’s surface water and groundwater resources. Our coalition strives to be inclusive and diverse, and our members believe that all Georgians have a right to safe recreation and use of Georgia’s waters. 

We will only support measures that make Georgia a more just and equitable state. We understand that racism is a complex issue that is deeply embedded in our society’s institutions. This bias influences public resources, such as community processes, priority setting, and resource allocation. We are committed to working long term to ensure that every Georgian has access to clean water and a seat at the decision making table.

The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are only the latest examples of the persistent injustices that Black Americans face. We firmly condemn racism and hate. We, as a coalition and as a society, must do better. We cannot successfully protect our water resources for all Georgians without also addressing systemic racism.”

GWC member SELC introduces new podcast sharing environmental stories in the South

Georgia Water Coalition member the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has launched Broken Ground, a new podcast that amplifies the voices of communities, accidental environmentalists, and conservationists by sharing their stories, unearthing important – yet often overlooked – environmental issues throughout the South.

Through compelling stories from Southerners of all walks of life, Broken Ground shows the real-life impacts of environmental policies for individuals and communities who, when forced to bear the brunt of bad decisions, often become unlikely heroes as a result.

“When you start to chip away and get at what’s behind bad environmental policies, that’s where you often find the real story,” said Claudine Ebeid McElwain, host of Broken Ground. “Understanding why we are making bad environmental choices locally, regionally, and nationally is how we figure out what needs fixing.”

Over the course of four episodes, the first season explores the past, present, and future of energy decisions across the South. From the environmental and personal costs, to the ongoing threat of bad decisions, to our future possibilities, Broken Ground shines a light on the people and stories at the heart of the matter.

The first episode of Broken Ground revisits one of the worst environmental disasters in American history, when a man-made, earthen dike holding back millions of gallons of coal ash sludge broke at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant in 2008. The horrific event inundated a small community with coal ash that devastated residents’ properties and nearby waterways. However, it took nearly a decade to uncover the full damage of this spill when it became apparent that workers tasked with cleaning up the coal ash were becoming sick and dying.

“Storytelling is one of the most important tools we can use to shed light on how environmental issues affect all of us,” said April Lipscomb, Staff Attorney in SELC’s Atlanta office. “Our hope is that through this podcast, we can elevate Southern voices and inspire others across the South to share their personal experiences with decision-makers to influence change.”

Broken Ground can be found on iTunesSpotify, or wherever listeners consume their podcasts.