Midstate waterways make ‘Dirty Dozen’ list

mlee@macon.comNovember 13, 2013 

ATLANTA -- An alliance of water protection groups says two Middle Georgia river sites are among the 12 most botched in the state.

Lake Juliette and the Ogeechee River near the pond where Plant Scherer keeps its coal ash is one of the Georgia Water Coalition’s so-called “Dirty Dozen.” The other is the entire Flint River, which the coalition says is sucked dry by Atlanta and its suburbs.

“The Georgia Water Coalition publishes this (list) annually as a call for action,” said Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and former state Department of Natural Resources board member Sally Bethea, whose organization is a coalition member.

The list is not of the most polluted waterways, she said, but instead catalogs the worst offenses to Georgia’s waters, all traceable to bad, misguided or underfunded policy.

Adjacent to Plant Scherer in Juliette is a pond full of what results from burning coal: ash with traces of heavy metal.

Georgia does not require linings or groundwater monitoring for operational ponds like Scherer’s. Neither the state nor the federal government considers the material toxic, though the federal Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a rule to subject it to tighter green rules.

“Our legislators can stand up and require ground water monitoring, require that companies store coal ash in lined ponds” to prevent heavy metals from percolating into groundwater, said Seth Gunning, Georgia organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

After ponds like Scherer’s are retired, Georgia regulates them as private industrial landfills and requires groundwater monitoring.

Meanwhile, the Flint River is too low south of Atlanta, said Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers.

Compared to years before 1975, “we’re looking at flows that are between 30 and 100 percent lower, depending on which tributary you’re looking at, which portion of the river you’re looking at,” Rogers said.

This year, the state Legislature considered renewing a law that can limit water use on the Flint in deep southwest Georgia during a drought, but that plan was killed in a fight over geography and aquifers.

The first draft of Senate Bill 213 mandated river health studies along the Flint’s entire length from Atlanta to the Florida state line. Green groups applauded considering the whole Flint watershed as one when it comes to policy-making. The House demurred.

House and Senate committees did agree to allow on the Flint so-called “flow augmentation”: pumping water into deep aquifers and pumping it back out when the river is depleted.

Augmentation is a separate gripe on the Dirty Dozen list, which calls a pilot project in Baker County environmentally and financially risky.

“We’ll be working to either change the augmentation language or kill the bill” when the state Legislative session begins in January, Rogers said.

The state Environmental Protection Division asked for the bill in the first place, seeing augmentation and other provisions as keys to keeping the river flowing and its protected river species alive.

The bill is “designed as one in a series of interim steps leading to a comprehensive approach to drought response in the Flint River basin over the next three to five years,” according to an EPD statement.

State Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, who sponsored the original bill, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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