Ga. legislative debates over coal ash, air pollution turned toxic at times

Environmental debates among state lawmakers often stir passion and the 2020 session offered its share of dust ups over a range of toxic issues. In March, north Cobb Republican state Rep. Don Parsons got an earful after a hearing on proposed toxic gas release transparency rules from activist Janet Rau and state Rep. Erick Allen, who represents a district home to a plant that emits ethylene oxide. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Environmental issues dominated this year’s legislative session even after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a three-month disruption and major financial uncertainty for the state.

And even though the people of Juliette – who showed up at the Capitol back in February toting jugs of contaminated water from their home faucets – didn’t convince lawmakers that utilities should be forced to move coal ash to lined landfills, other environmental measures did make the long, winding journey to the governor’s desk.

Now that the dust has settled, here’s the Georgia Recorder’s look back at how the most notable environmental bills fared this session.

Already signed: 

– Before this month, toxic coal ash could be dumped in Georgia for less than what it costs to ditch household trash, which is a discount that critics argued attracts out-of-state coal ash at a time when Georgia has plenty of its own toxic stockpiles to deal with.

A bill that passed this year raises the surcharge that local governments charge from $1 per ton to $2.50, bringing it in line with household garbage. Gov. Brian Kemp quickly signed it into law.

Environmentalists hailed the measure as a milestone in Georgia.

“This is a major step towards closing loopholes that have turned Georgia into a dumping ground for toxic coal ash,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia and chair of the Georgia Water Coalition’s coal ash committee. “It is also the first bill to pass our legislature that will address the massive threat coal ash poses in Georgia.”

What’s waiting on Gov. Brian Kemp’s pen:

– The stench in rural Elbert County from septic waste being passed off as soil amendments led lawmakers to overwhelmingly back a bill penalizing the practice and empowering local officials to use zoning to make life more bearable for residents.

Last summer, state inspectors found plastic tampon applicators, condoms, candy wrappers, plastic bottle caps, plastic straws and other trash on an Elbert County farm. They wrote in their report that the garbage appeared to be “septic tank cleanout sludge.”

– Lawmakers will require facilities using a cancer-causing chemical, ethylene oxide, which is used to sterilize medical equipment, to report any leaks that violate their permit within 24 hours.

There was bitter disagreement earlier over whether small leaks should be reported. But the measure ultimately passed easily – with help from one of the governor’s floor leaders – and the state Environmental Protection Division is already posting the information on its website.

Supporters of the shoal bass want to see it named Georgia’s official riverine sport fish – an honor that is meant to promote the need for clean, free-flowing water. Contributed by Flint Riverkeeper

– Northeast Georgia residents were able to persuade lawmakers that creosote-soaked railroad ties shouldn’t be burned for fuel after a pair of plants caused disruptions and a large fish kill in their backyard. Lawmakers backed a bill banning the practice at most plants in the state.

– And it looks like the shoal bass will finally claim its title as Georgia’s official state riverine sport fish – a distinction that environmentalists hope will help protect the Flint River where the shoalie lives from dams and other potential threats.

What didn’t happen:

– Other bills targeting coal ash were floated this year, but lost steam along the way.

One of the doomed bills would have banned landfills – especially any accepting coal ash – near the Satilla River after a large dump was proposed in Brantley County. But that bill stalled in the House in final days of the session.

The sponsor, Sen. William Ligon, a Brunswick Republican, who also pushed for the increased coal ash dumping fee that did pass, acknowledged that the proposed landfill sparked his bill aiming to protect the blackwater river in southeast Georgia, but he said he is also concerned other dumps could be coming.

Another failed bill would have required local public notice when a coal ash pond is being drained into nearby fresh water. That one stalled in the Senate.

– Agricultural groups pressed hard for a proposed remake of Georgia’s three-decade-old “right to farm” law, which is meant to protect long-time farmers from the complaints of newcomers who object to the sights, smells and noises of country life.

But the bill struggled to overcome concerns that it would undermine private property rights and, in the end, support fizzled after the Senate made changes that the main sponsor said gutted the proposal. Opponents of the bill also argued that the current law is working just fine.

– And a proposed ban on plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers had a public hearing in a Senate committee in February, nary to be heard from again.