Shift from coal power leaves state air pollution regulators short of money

    Georgia's environmental agency charged with regulating air polluters is dealing with budget woes in part caused by lost fees from a shift from decreased use of coal for energy. Plant Bowen near Cartersville is one of a few coal-fired plants Georgia Power still operates in the state. File/Georgia Recorder

    The gradual retirement of coal-fired power plants in Georgia is leaving a state program that polices industrial polluters short on cash.

    Permit fees – a key source of revenue for the state Environmental Protection Division’s air protection branch – have declined and left the branch to deal with a $1 million shortfall in the new budget year that starts July 1.

    And that’s on the heels of annual losses in recent years. To adjust, the cash-strapped branch has trimmed positions, phased in new permit application fees and made other changes even as it handled high-profile cases involving a cancer-causing gas at medical sterilization plants and a biomass plant burning creosote-soaked railroad ties.

    “Emissions in (Georgia) have decreased significantly, which is good for air quality, but the workload in the air protection branch has not decreased as significantly,” Karen Hays, the branch’s chief, said during Tuesday’s virtual meeting of the state Board of Natural Resources.

    The state panel approved fee increases Tuesday that are meant to make up the $1 million budget shortfall at a time when all state agencies have been told to cut 14% of their spending.

    The changes will increase some fee types, add a new $650 annual maintenance fee for the state’s major sources of air pollution and raise fees for expedited permit applications by 25%.

    The agency did not raise the amount charged per ton of emissions, which is now at $35.50 per ton – far less than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends.

    Environmentalists argue the plan – and the agency’s aversion to increasing that per-ton fee – is just prolonging the program’s funding woes.

    Stacy Shelton, an associate attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, urged the agency to consider annual, automatic adjustments to the dollar-per-ton fee.

    “Laying off staff is not the way to sufficiently fund air quality protection for Georgians,” Shelton wrote in a letter to EPD. “Our ability to breathe healthy air should not be limited by funding; rather the funding should be increased to ensure we have healthy air to breathe.”

    The agency, though, argues that it is unsustainable to rely heavily on the per-ton fee while also working with facilities to reduce emissions that drive the fee, according to the division’s formal written response. Too much emphasis on the per-ton fee, the agency said, would also place “the majority of the burden” on the those who pay the fee.

    The state Department of Natural Resources and EPD need to submit budget plans that show the mandated 14% spending cut to the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget today.

    Richard Dunn, the division director, said Tuesday that he is still polishing his agency’s plan to find about $5.4 million in savings. He said he hoped to avoid forcing staff to take unpaid time off as the agency has done in the past.

    “For some agencies, furlough days may be an appropriate response,” Dunn said. “For us, right now, we have to acknowledge that furlough days are a morale killer and at EPD our fundamental business challenge is the competition for talent.”

    And if jobs are cut, Dunn said he intended to trim his workforce through attrition. He said the agency already has 200 fewer people than it did entering the Great Recession a decade ago.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.