Opinion

Substantive change or just semantics in state water regulations rewrite?

Words can both reveal and obscure. A recent rule change that Georgia’s environmental regulation agency describes as a “clarification” has, at least for the moment, left things decidedly unclear as to what its effects might be.

Just as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper announced that West Point Lake has once again exceeded state water quality standards, another Georgia riverkeeper organization is concerned that two seemingly innocuous words might compromise those standards significantly.

The Environmental Protection Division’s current water quality rules include this sentence: “All waters shall be free from material related to municipal, industrial or other discharges which produce turbidity, color, odor or other objectionable conditions which interfere with legitimate water uses.”

The Savannah Morning News reports that a Nov. 21 memo from EPD Director Richard E. Dunn proposes this change (emphasis ours): “All waters shall be free from material related to municipal, industrial or other discharges which produce turbidity, color, odor or other objectionable conditions which unreasonably interfere with designated water uses.”

The question of how substantive that change might be is especially pertinent in southeastern Georgia, where last year the Altamaha Riverkeeper won a case challenging EPD’s discharge permit for Rayonier Advanced Material pulp mill. That mill, the Morning News reports, pumps “50 million to 60 million gallons of dark, smelly discharge” into the Altamaha at Jesup … daily.

The ruling was overturned by a Superior Court in Wayne County where, the newspaper noted, Rayonier is the largest employer. The case is now pending in the state Court of Appeals.

In the memo proposing the rewritten rule, Dunn wrote that it is “a clarification only and does not change the stringency of the narrative standards that are being amended.” Is that a distinction without a difference? How exactly are standards “amended” without being changed?

Jac Capp, chief of watershed protection for EPD, said in a phone interview with the Morning News, “What we’re concerned about is that the interpretation environmental groups are using is if anyone doesn’t like it it’s a violation of water quality standards … They may say ‘my use is being interfered with’ because they don’t like (the discharge).”

That’s an absolutely valid point.

So is its flip side — the concern that EPD’s interpretation of “unreasonably” and “designated” could become a get-out-of-jail-free card for polluters. “This isn’t just a simple matter of changing a few words in a meaningless rule,” said Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn.

The proposal is scheduled to be presented today to the Department of Natural Resources’ governor-appointed and Senate-confirmed board, one member of which is a Rayonier executive. The company would not say whether it had requested the change, but the proposal came, the Morning News reported, a week after the Georgia Water Coalition named Rayonier in its 2017 “Dirty Dozen” report.

If the DNR board approves the proposal, there will be a 45-day public notice period, followed by a public hearing. This bears watching.

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