Friday, December 9, 2011

Let's call the EPD what it really is

When I started learning about coal and the impact a coal plant would have on my community, someone with many years of experience in environmental work referred to the Environmental Protection Division as the "Environmental Permitting Division." As a novice, I thought that was pretty clever. It isn't now, unfortunately.

Almost two months ago in this blog I asked if ANY state agency/department in the state is protecting our health. There are no searchable news releases from the Georgia Department of Community Health concerning the impact of coal plants on the state's citizens (there are from other health organizations such as the American Lung Association). That begs the question of why, with high asthma rates among children, and  high cardiopulmonary disease rates in adults, DCH isn't at the front line on coal plant emissions in the state (both existing and proposed).

It is for sure we can't count on the Environmental "Protection" Division to protect our health by reducing pollutants spewing into the air or dumping into our waterways. Based on his support of adding new coal plants in the state, Gov. Deal isn't an advocate for our health. He allowed Allen Barnes to continue as Director of EPD after the state's largest fish kill occurred on his watch, followed by the EPD's overdue admission that it hadn't properly monitored the company responsible for the dumping that killed the fish. Another fish kill happened on Brier Creek, and another was reported in Commission Creek. And yet Deal was happy to allow the E"P"D leader to continue.

Allen Barnes has left his job at E"P"D and his replacement, Jud Turner, a lobbyist, opened the door for a warm welcome from environmentalists by saying just after his appointment was announced, that he will “adopt the policies of his predecessor in trying to keep economic development coming into the state while regulating its impact on the environment.”

My comments submitted to the E"P"D during the last air permit hearing on Plant Washington included this:

The EPD’s mission is:
protects and restores Georgia’s environment. We take the lead in ensuring clean air, water and land. With our partners, we pursue a sustainable environment that provides a foundation for a vibrant economy and healthy communities.

Your vision statement includes:
Georgia’s environment is healthy and sustainable. Natural resources are protected and managed to meet the needs of current and future generations.

Your principles include:
EPD serves the public by implementing state laws, rules, and policies to protect human health and the environment.
EPD applies and enforces environmental laws and standards in a consistent, fair, and timely manner. 
EPD is proactive and results-oriented, and helps develop new approaches to meet Georgia’s environmental challenges. 
Georgians have a right to and a responsibility for a healthy environment and the conservation of our natural resources. 
Georgia’s environment consists of diverse ecosystems of interrelated and interdependent components, including people, plants, animals and their habitats, as well as air, water, and land. 
Environmental stewardship, protection of human health, and economic vitality are compatible and mutually beneficial goals. 

Several concerned citizens joined me that night and said the E"P"D's job is to protect the natural resources in our state and the health of the people who live here. Economic vitality is mentioned in the last part of the department's vision, but it seems that the Department has narrowed its work to solely focus on the economic vitality of a few private companies and their shareholders.

While I was out of the office earlier this week (and mulling over any number of topics for an update to this blog) the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer was working on an editorial which was quickly picked up and circulated today by the very people (environmentalists) that Turner should be courting. Tom Crawford thought it was worth quoting in full (and I agree):

Jud Turner, Gov. Nathan Deal’s choice to head the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, will officially succeed EPD Director Allen Barnes in the new year. At Wednesday’s meeting of the state Natural Resources Board, Turner pledged, as reported by Morris News Service, to “adopt the policies of his predecessor in trying to keep economic development coming into the state while regulating its impact on the environment.”
The reaction of Georgia’s environmental community was almost certainly less than enthusiastic. And that skepticism might ultimately have less to do with Turner’s qualifications and values (or with those of his predecessor) than with the years-old conflict inherent in the agency he has been tapped to lead.
Barnes, who has led the EPD for slightly more than two years after succeeding Columbus native Carol Couch, acknowledged his conflicts with environmentalists but said part of the office’s responsibility is “to find that balance between a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment.” Turner echoed the observation: “There is a balance, as Allen has talked about, between economic sustainability and environmental sustainability.”
Of course such a balance is essential, in Georgia and everywhere else. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that while both economic development and environmental protection are critical, an agency officially titled the Environmental Protection Division should be primarily — perhaps exclusively — concerned with the latter.
The fact that Georgia’s top-ranking environmental watchdog is expected to concern himself/herself with economics, beyond the obvious responsibility of managing the department’s budget, goes to the chronic structural dysfunction of this part of state government. And that structural problem goes all the way back to the Carter administration. (That’s Jimmy Carter the governor, not Carter the later president.)
As part of a well-intentioned and efficiency-minded reorganization of state government, EPD was placed under the Department of Natural Resources, largely an economic development agency. As the decades have gone by, the tension between industrial and environmental interests — a familiar tension, but in Georgia one that plays out under the same bureaucratic roof — has made the merger look more and more like a shotgun wedding.
Environmental protectors should be protecting the environment … period. Surely there are ample forces in Georgia government to effect that balance to which the current and future EPD directors alluded. (Rest assured that in the Georgia General Assembly, business interests will be devoutly represented.)
Turner, like Barnes before him, would have a tough enough job just protecting Georgia’s precious and beautifully diverse environment. Having to worry about economic growth as well shouldn’t be part of his mission. But until Georgia leaders rethink the role and importance of environmental protection, EPD is destined to remain a second-tier bureaucracy.
In this time of budget crunching and nickel squeezing, will the Governor's next spending reduction suggestion be to simply roll the E"P"D into the state's Department of Economic Development and let them pursue and permit more companies to degrade and poison our environment? At the current pace, it would be in keeping with the state's safeguarding of our natural resources and our health.


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