New dirty dozen report highlights how Georgians have acted to protect state’s waterways 

The Chattahoochee River (photo: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – Growing up, Linda Smith enjoyed swimming in the Canoochee River and resting on one of its white sandbars near her family home.

But by the 1990s, she and her family could no longer swim there because the water was covered with a thick, dark algal bloom – the product of runoff from Claxton Poultry, a chicken processing facility located upstream.  

Smith and her sister became amateur environmental sleuths, documenting the violations and, in 2000, filing a lawsuit against the chicken company for its violations of the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit forced the company to pay for environmental clean-up in the region. 

Smith described how the pollution of her family’s beloved swimming spot led her to become an environmental advocate this week during a press conference held to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of federal legislation that, among other things, empowered American citizens to help enforce environmental laws.  

“It’s difficult for two old women who didn’t have education on this kind of thing to provide the evidence,” Smith said. She and her sister received assistance from scientists at Georgia Southern University. But they had to do much of the legwork themselves because they could not afford to hire experts.  

“[We] crept around and … took videos of what we knew were violations. … It was quite a challenge,” Smith said, noting they often had to film at night to get the evidence they needed.  

To mark the Clean Water Act’s anniversary and celebrate the efforts of everyday environmentalists like Smith, the Georgia Water Coalition this week issued a special version of its annual Dirty Dozen Report.  

While the “dirty dozen” usually refers to the worst cases of pollution in the past year in Georgia, this year the report looks at how ordinary citizens like Smith pushed forward water protection using a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows citizens to sue polluters.  

“There are so many stories like Linda’s where the Clean Water Act has given citizens a powerful tool to set things right,” said Joe Cook, who wrote the report for the Athens-based Georgia River Nework. “In Linda’s case and in so many other cases … citizen groups have stepped in to force state and federal agencies to actually enforce the law.”

Cook said the state has seen a flourishing of citizen-led environmental groups since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. There are at least 30 citizen-driven water protection groups around the state, whereas there were no such groups prior to the Clean Water Act. For example, Claxton Poultry provided funding for Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the Canoochee and Ogeechee Rivers, as a result of the Smiths’ lawsuit. 

“The progress that has been made since then … has been remarkable,” said Cook.  “But we still have a lot to do to make all the state’s water bodies swimmable and fishable.”  

Industrial pollution of waterways is one major concern. Some wastewater facilities use a system called the “land application system” to get rid of their pollutants. In this system, wastewater is sprayed into fields and forests so that it can soak into the ground instead of being discharged directly into a river or being sent to a wastewater treatment plan. While the land application system can be an improvement over wastewater handling systems, it still has flaws and can lead to pollution of groundwater and rivers.  

After Dalton Utilities built such a system along the Conasauga River, state and federal regulators found that the wastewater spraying was polluting groundwater and the river and sued the company. Much of the polluted wastewater came from the area’s famous carpet factories. The lawsuit resulted in a $6 million penalty in 1998 that was, at that time, the largest in the history of the Clean Water Act. Dalton Utilities also had to finance the upgrading of its sewer system.  

Despite the success of the lawsuit, the problem has not been solved in North Georgia, said Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network. A group of chemicals known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” because of their staying power have also been sprayed on the fields along the rivers for decades.  

“Today, these forever chemicals that have been linked to human health impacts can be found in the drinking water supplies downstream from Dalton,” Peck said. The city of Rome and other cities, including Gadsden, Ala., are suing Dalton Utilities and carpet companies to recoup the millions of dollars the municipalities have spent to make their drinking water safe.  

“We need to get ahold of these emerging pollutants and keep them out of our drinking water sources,” Cook said.  

This year’s Dirty Dozen report calls on Georgia policymakers to focus on protecting the Okefenokee Swamp. Alabama-based mining company Twin Pines Minerals has applied for permits to set up a mine just to the east of the swamp. Currently, the application is before Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD).  

“EPD must deny permits for this risky project, and state legislators should act to permanently protect the Okefenokee,” Cook said.  

Cook also called on Georgia Power to dig up coal ash that is currently stored in unlined pits that allow for groundwater pollution. Georgia Power should move the ash to dry, lined pits that are away from water, he said. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia lawmakers shelve controversial proposals on electric vehicles

ATLANTA – A legislative study committee looking for ways to help accommodate an expected increase in electric vehicles plying Georgia highways approved a series of wide-ranging recommendations Wednesday.

But the lawmakers either tabled or defeated proposals on some of the most controversial issues the panel took up during a half dozen meetings across the state this summer and fall, including how to ensure utilities that build EV charging stations don’t compete unfairly with convenience stores.

“We talked about this for four months and never figured out how to do it,” said Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on the Electrification of Transportation.

The study committee reached broad consensus on the need for legislation requiring EV charging stations to charge motorists by the kilowatt-hour rather than by the amount of time they spend charging their EVs at a commercial charging station. That recommendation made sense because EV chargers operate at different speeds.

The panel also recommended legislation requiring state licensing and inspection of commercial EV charging stations and suggested putting the Georgia Department of Agriculture in charge of the program.

The final report the committee adopted Wednesday also waded into the subject of how to replace the gasoline tax revenue the state will lose over time as more and more Georgians buy EVs and stop pumping gas into their cars.

One recommendation urged making any future tax the state might adopt based on the number of miles driven comparable to what drivers of cars powered by internal-combustion engines pay in gas taxes. Another called on the state Department of Transportation to undertake a study to determine a fair level of taxation for EVs.

But the committee couldn’t agree on how to let utilities into the EV charging station business. Executives with both Georgia Power and the state’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) testified at earlier meetings of the panel that utilities could build EV charging stations in underserved areas, including rural parts of Georgia where private investors aren’t willing to go.

But several members of the panel argued Wednesday that allowing utilities to compete unrestricted with convenience stations and other commercial EV charging stations would be unfair because the utilities could pass on the costs of their investment in charging stations to their rate base.

One of the recommendations presented to the committee called for prohibiting utilities from participating in the charging station business unless they do so through a separate subsidiary.

“We’re not saying Georgia Power and the EMCs can’t sell power,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “We’re just saying they can’t compete against the free market system.”

But others on the committee said putting restrictions on utilities that want to invest in EV charging stations would send the wrong message to an industry that is playing an important role in Georgia’s economy.

“The utilities need to give the private sector room to build this thing out,” said Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry. “But I’m reluctant to put restrictions on the development of charging stations this early in the game.”

With lawmakers divided down the middle, the committee voted to table the issue.

Another controversial topic that gave the panel pause was whether to get rid of a “carveout” in current state law that allows Tesla to sell its EVs directly to Georgia motorists but requires other EV manufacturers to sell through dealerships.

Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, whose district includes the giant Kia manufacturing plant in West Point, said Tesla shouldn’t be allowed to keep its carveout. He said Kia contributes more to the state’s economy than Tesla because Kia’s dealerships create sales and service jobs.

“Tesla has got a cherry in the state of Georgia,” Robertson said.

But the committee defeated a recommendation calling for putting a sunset date of one year on the Tesla carveout.

“I don’t want to tell any company, ‘We’re going to put you out of business in a year,’ ” said Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the committee’s other co-chairman.

After adopting its final report, members of the committee agreed to include the tabled recommendations in a section of the report. That way, lawmakers still interested in pursuing any of those items during the upcoming General Assembly session will have information on which to base proposed legislation.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

First bill of next year’s General Assembly session targets Georgia’s abortion ban  

Democratic State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, filed the first bill of the 2023 legislative session.

ATLANTA – The first bill prefiled for the 2023 legislative session takes aim at one of the hottest political topics in Georgia, a law that bans abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy. 

House Bill 1 (HB 1) would require the state to pay for many of the costs of having and caring for a child for mothers who would like to have had an abortion but were prohibited from doing so by the Georgia law that prohibits the procedure after fetal cardiac activity can be detected. 

Democratic state Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick of Lithonia filed the proposal last week, gaining the coveted “HB 1” designation. The bill is officially titled The Georgia Pro-Birth Accountability Act. 

Georgia’s abortion ban dates back to 2019, when the Republican-led General Assembly approved – and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed – a law that bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law, alternatively known as the Heartbeat Bill or The LIFE Act, was blocked from taking immediate effect by federal courts. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade last summer opened the door for the Georgia ban to take effect. Pro-choice groups challenged the law in the state courts, and the matter is currently before the Georgia Supreme Court. 

Last week, the high court said the law could remain in effect while the case is pending.  

House Bill 1 is based on the assumption that the abortion ban will remain in effect. The proposal requires the state to cover a wide range of expenses for mothers who otherwise would have had abortions if not for the ban. 

Those expenses include medical, legal, and psychological expenses related to the pregnancy and postpartum period. The bill also requires the state to provide financial and food assistance to the woman as well as her child until the child is 18. If the mother is disabled due to the pregnancy, or if the child is born with a disability, the state would also cover those costs. 

The legislation would require the state to pay child support to an unmarried woman if the father cannot or will not pay child support. It also would require the state to fund an IRS 529 savings trust that would help pay for the child’s higher education.  

Women would be able to qualify for the program by filing an affidavit with the state’s Department of Human Services stating that they would have had an abortion if not for the Georgia ban on abortions.  

Kendrick said she filed the bill to make a point, although she is aware it has little chance of success in the state House next year. 

“If we want to say we are a pro-life state, then we need to put our money where our mouth is, that means childcare, that means the mother’s expenses. That means helping raise the child from birth to age 18 and not just caring about the nine months that they’re in the womb,” Kendrick said. “We’ll see where the priorities lie, because if we do have a surplus, if we continue to have one, there’s no reason that we can’t fund this.”  

Kendrick said she requested a fiscal analysis of how much the proposal would cost and will make that information public when she receives it.

“This is essentially a bill to see who is going to stand up on those principles and … who is, as I suspect, really just trying to control women’s reproductive rights.”  

Republicans, including Kemp, have argued the legislature has taken steps to create a pro-life culture in the state, such as passing measures that make it easier for Georgians to adopt and expanding postpartum Medicaid for new mothers for up to a year after delivery.

“[We] are committed to continuing Georgia’s reputation of being a state that protects life at all stages,” Kemp said in May when he signed a law that allows nonprofits and religious institutions to set up free maternity homes for pregnant women and new mothers.

Republican Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, who sponsored the 2019 abortion law, criticized Kendrick’s bill. (Setzler was recently elected to the state Senate and will begin his term in January after 17 years in the state House.)  

“Upon cursory review, it’s obvious that Representative Kendrick is putting forth a cynical, non-serious bill candidly trivializing the value of human life,” said Setzler.

The state legislature is set to begin the 2023 session Jan. 9.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Georgia Power rate hike request draws pushback from public

ATLANTA – Georgia Power customers can ill afford a nearly 12% rate increase at a time rampant inflation is making it harder to buy food and fuel, more than a dozen witnesses told state energy regulators Tuesday.

“I’m tired of seeing companies making record profits … when good people working every day are not getting increases in their wages,” Linda Pritchett, a city council candidate in South Fulton, told members of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC}. “People simply cannot afford this rate hike.”

Pritchett was among several current and former politicians to address the commission at the start of two days of hearings on Georgia Power’s request to raise the average residential customer’s bill by $16.29 a month starting Jan. 1.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the 12% rate hike is only the first of several the company is expected to bring before the commission in the next two to three years. Together, those increases could drive up rates as much as 45%, he said.

“If you vote for this, you’re about to send working people in Georgia into a crisis,” Fort told commissioners. “Don’t raise these rates on Georgia working people.”

After the public witnesses gave their testimony, representatives of Georgia Power defended the utility’s rate increase request as necessary to make the capital investments required to strengthen the electric grid and maintain quality customer service.

“We operate a capital-intensive business,” said Aaron Abramovitz, Georgia Power’s chief financial officer.

Abramovitz pushed back against recommendations by the PSC’s Public Interest Advocacy Staff to reduce the size of the proposed rate hike. Among other things, the staff is asking the commission to lower the return on equity (ROE) Georgia Power is seeking from 11% to 9.5%.

“Any radical reduction of the company’s requested ROE … would be unprecedented and unwarranted, with such severe changes significantly impairing the company’s financial integrity and its ability to raise capital at a reasonable cost upon reasonable terms for the benefit of customers,” the CFO testified.

The PSC staff also has recommended the commission order Georgia Power to reduce the operation and maintenance costs it can recover from ratepayers and reduce its electrical transmission and distribution investments.

Michael Robinson, vice president of planning, operations, and policy at Georgia Power, said the company needs to make major investments in its transmission and distribution systems to replace aging infrastructure that is up to 70 years old.

“The company cannot delay or take shortcuts in implementing these grid investments,” Abramovitz added.

Dan Walsh, a lawyer representing the PSC staff, objected to Abramovitz’s use of the word “radical” in describing the staff’s proposal to reduce the ROE requested by the company. Walsh said the average ROE awarded to utilities across the industry since 2020 is less than 9.5%.

The PSC, which held two rounds of hearings on the rate hike request earlier this fall, is scheduled to vote on the rates Dec. 20.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Asian American Pacific Islander lawmakers form caucus in General Assembly

Georgia Rep. Sam Park

ATLANTA – Asian American Pacific Islander members of the General Assembly have formed the legislature’s first AAPI caucus.

When the 2023 legislative term starts in January, Georgia will have the most AAPI state lawmakers in the nation.

“As the first Asian American Democrat elected to the Georgia state legislature, I am so proud to see our diverse AAPI communities continue to grow and exercise their right to vote to determine our shared future,” said state Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville. “My colleagues and I will continue to do all we can to ensure our AAPI communities have a seat at the table and a government that serves their best interest.”

“One thing we’ve heard from many Asian Americans is a dismaying sense of invisibility,” added state Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, who was elected to the House this month after redistricting narrowed her odds of being reelected to the Senate. “But times are changing, as is the face of Georgia. … This is represented in the historic representation we now see of AAPI lawmakers at the state Capitol.”

The bipartisan Georgia Legislative Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus will include 12 founding members and 11 voting members of the state House and Senate when the 2023 session convenes. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, is leaving the House following an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state.

Besides Park and Au, members include Reps. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock; Marvin Lim, D-Norcross; and Reps.-elect Saira Draper, D-Atlanta; Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville; Farooq Mughal, D-Buford; Ruwa Romman, D-Peachtree Corners; Long Tran, D-Dunwoody; state Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville; and Sen.-elect Nabilah Islam, D-Lawrenceville.

Georgia’s AAPI population is the fastest growing, making up nearly 5% of the state’s population. Nationally, the AAPI community is projected to be the nation’s largest immigrant group by the middle of this century.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.