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Local News

Earth Day report card: Georgians battle threats to state’s natural wonders year round

Credit: iStock

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
April 22, 2024

Activities promoting environmental protection will be held across Georgia on Monday to celebrate Earth Day.

However, for many conservationists the day of recognition is met with lingering concerns about decision makers who support plans they argue could have long-term detrimental effects on Georgia’s ecosystem.

Georgia environmental policy has taken center stage over the last few years on issues ranging from the proposed spaceport rocket launching pad  in Camden County, which was stopped by a local movement, to the city of Atlanta being tagged earlier this month by state environmental regulators for several violations at its largest wastewater treatment plant, including spilling ammonia, phosphorus, and E. coli contained in poorly treated effluent into the Chattahoochee River.

The ire from several clean energy groups has grown over the last week with state regulators signing off on Georgia Power’s plans for a significant increase in its reliance on fossil fuels in order to meet the company’s forecast of extraordinary growth from its large industrial customer base over the next several years.

Georgia Power’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan comes at the same time as its 5 million ratepayers are already paying higher bills due to hikes on base rates, as well as covering the billion dollar tabs for coal ash cleanup at its legacy plants and the recently completed nuclear power expansion at Plant Vogtle.

Maya van Rossum, the leader of the national green amendment movement said Georgia lawmakers have a great opportunity to pledge that the state will implement environmental policies intended to ensure that all Georgians have equal access to a healthy environment that includes clean air to breathe and pure water for drinking, swimming and fishing.

Nearly 20 states have introduced green amendment provisions, and van Rossum says she remains in close contact with allies in Pennsylvania, Montana and New York which have green amendments on the books.

Georgia is like most states with business-friendly environmental policies and laws that provide more regulatory support to utilities and mining companies often at the expense of a clean, healthy environment, she said.

“We’ve seen the many powerful ways that a constitutional green amendment can make a difference for people when it comes to environmental protection,” van Rossum said.

“The amendment can be used by people to advocate and to litigate for critical protections to thwart bad government laws and regulations that would result in devastating harm, to challenge permitting decisions that are going to advance dangerous industrial operations that will have harmful impacts on local communities and to clean up toxic contamination,” van Rossum said.

The Georgia Public Service Commission’s vote on Tuesday clears the way for Georgia Power to add an extra 6,600 megawatts to its capacity over the next several years, with the majority of that new energy source coming from the construction of three new natural gas and oil-burning units at Plant Yates and the extension of agreements to purchase electricity from a Florida power plant and a facility owned by Mississippi Power, a sister utility of Georgia Power.

Georgia Power is promising “downward pressure” on rates that will result in the average residential customer saving $2.89 per month between 2026 and 2028.

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia Power’s average household is projected to spend $44 more per month on electric bills between 2022 and 2025 to pay for incremental base rate hikes and other additional expenses.

“Georgians pay some of the highest energy bills in the country, and they keep climbing. It is the PSC’s duty to meaningfully protect Georgians’ health and wallets, and they failed to do that today,” Codi Norred, executive director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, said after the PSC vote Tuesday. “Our most vulnerable neighbors, including older adults on fixed incomes, will face dangerous temperatures this summer because they can’t afford their energy bills. Georgians can’t afford this commission approving overpriced energy.”

A major environmental battle since 2019 has centered around a company’s plans to mine near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for heavy metals.

The majority of the 70,000 comments filed by the April deadline were in opposition to the state’s Environmental Protection Division’s approval of Twin Pines’ permits to mine titanium, staurolite, and zircon along the Trail Ridge, which is considered an important barrier protecting wetlands in the swamp that straddles the Florida-Georgia border.

In another environmental effort, community activists in northeast Madison and Franklin counties banded together in 2020 to persuade lawmakers to ban biomass plants from burning creosote-soaked railroad crossties for electricity.

In December 2022, the Southern Environmental Law Center assisted a community group in south Georgia in negotiating stronger public health protections as part of a settlement with a company that planned to build a wood pellet plant in a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood in Cook County.

Van Rossum attributes early success in the green movement to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case in 2013 that overturned a state law eliminating local zoning control over fracking, an unregulated oil and gas drilling technique that critics claim threatens waterways.

Soon after, the state’s highest court determined that a constitutional amendment passed in 1971 declaring citizens’ environmental rights was legally sound enough to be considered in policy decisions.

Though progress is not always easy, incremental progress can result in significant changes to provide equal protection for environmental rights in Georgia, Van Rossum said.

Georgia constitutional amendments are fairly rare because they require a two-thirds majority of Georgia legislators passing a ballot referendum measure that is subsequently approved by Georgia voters.

“If you’ve got good government officials who want to protect the environment, they will get on board with this green amendment,” van Rossum said. “They will see it as a tool to do right by the environment and the communities they’re supposed to protect.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.