Georgia officials are proposing changes to water safety regulations that could lead to more pollution in the state’s waterways, environmentalists say.
But state Environmental Protection Division officials say the tweaks are meant to clarify rules that regulate how much waste can be dumped into Georgia waters.
Jac Capp, the chief of the EPD’s Watershed Protection Branch, said the Department of Natural Resources’ proposals were brought on by a court case over pollution by a pulp mill in southeast Georgia.
“That current language could be interpreted to prohibit interference with any water use at any time,” Capp said. “We disagree with that interpretation.”
According to state regulations, “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 division wants to alter the language to address conditions that “unreasonably interfere with designated uses.” If the change is approved, a person would have to prove he or she is seriously affected by polluted water.
Environmentalists call the move a way to skirt what they believe will be a judge’s ruling in their favor over what they say are high levels of pollution being dumped into the Altamaha River by Rayonier Advanced Materials.
Conservation groups, as well as people who fish, swim and kayak in the river, have long complained that the dun-colored discharge — visible for miles downstream and linked to a nasty odor — ruins fishing and recreational activities. The Altamaha is a mostly wild, blackwater river that flows from Middle Georgia to Darien on the Atlantic coast.
The state designates the Altamaha near Rayonier for fishing use. If the new rules are approved and applied to Rayonier in Jesup, the company would not be held to as stringent a standard as it would if the primary use were swimming or recreation.
Officials with the conservation group Southern Environmental Law Center said changing the regulations will roll back state water quality standards.
“It is incredibly disappointing that the Environmental Protection Division is moving ahead with changes that may seem minor but that actually roll back essential safeguards intended to protect Georgia’s waters across the entire state,” said Hutton Brown, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The EPD began accepting comments on the proposed changes Tuesday and will hold a public hearing 10 a.m. Jan. 25 at the division training center in Atlanta. Comments will be accepted through Jan. 31.
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