Assessing Georgia’s Efforts to Preserve its Natural Wonders: An Earth Day Report Card

The Okefenokee Swamp, a popular destination, draws in an impressive 650,000 visitors each year. It serves as a testament to the natural beauty and allure of the area. Meanwhile, the establishment of biomass power plants in northeast Georgia led to a statewide ban in 2020 on burning railroad ties for electricity. This decision was made to address environmental concerns and promote cleaner energy sources. In another incident, a sewage spill forced the closure of a section of the Chattahoochee River in metro Atlanta during the July 4th holiday in 2023. This unfortunate incident highlights the need for proper wastewater management to protect our waterways. On a more positive note, state regulators recently granted approval on April 16 for Georgia Power’s plans to construct three gas turbines at Plant Yates. This development is a step towards enhancing the state’s energy infrastructure and meeting the growing demand for electricity.

Georgia is set to host various activities on Monday to commemorate Earth Day and promote environmental protection.

Despite the day of recognition, many conservationists still have lingering concerns about decision makers who support plans they argue could harm Georgia’s ecosystem in the long run.

Georgia’s environmental policy has become a prominent topic in recent years, with various issues capturing the public’s attention. One such issue was the proposed spaceport rocket launching pad in Camden County, which faced opposition from a local movement. Additionally, the city of Atlanta made headlines when state environmental regulators identified multiple violations at its largest wastewater treatment plant. These violations included the release of ammonia, phosphorus, and poorly treated effluent containing E. coli into the Chattahoochee River.

Several clean energy groups have expressed their frustration and concern regarding Georgia Power’s recent decision to heavily rely on fossil fuels. The state regulators have approved the company’s plans, despite the growing demand for renewable energy sources. This move comes as Georgia Power anticipates significant growth from its large industrial customer base in the coming years.

Georgia Power is implementing a multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan while its 5 million ratepayers are already facing increased bills from higher base rates. In addition to this, they are also covering the costs of coal ash cleanup at legacy plants and the recently finished nuclear power expansion at Plant Vogtle.

Maya van Rossum, the leader of the national green amendment movement, emphasized the significant opportunity for Georgia lawmakers to commit to implementing environmental policies. These policies aim to guarantee equal access for all Georgians to a healthy environment, encompassing clean air for breathing and unpolluted water for drinking, swimming, and fishing.

Van Rossum remains in close contact with allies in Pennsylvania, Montana, and New York, where green amendments have been introduced. Nearly 20 states have incorporated green amendment provisions into their legislation.

According to the speaker, Georgia, like many other states, prioritizes business-friendly environmental policies and laws. These policies often offer regulatory support to utilities and mining companies, but can come at the expense of a clean and healthy environment.

According to van Rossum, a constitutional green amendment has proven to have a significant impact on environmental protection and can greatly benefit people.

According to van Rossum, the amendment empowers individuals to actively advocate for and legally challenge policies that could lead to significant harm caused by unfavorable government laws and regulations. It provides a platform to contest permitting decisions that promote hazardous industrial activities with adverse effects on nearby communities, as well as address the remediation of toxic contamination.

The Georgia Public Service Commission has given its approval, paving the way for Georgia Power to increase its capacity by an additional 6,600 megawatts in the coming years. This boost will primarily be achieved through the construction of three new units at Plant Yates, which will utilize natural gas and oil as energy sources. Additionally, Georgia Power has extended its agreements to purchase electricity from a power plant in Florida and a facility owned by Mississippi Power, a sister utility of Georgia Power.

Georgia Power has made a commitment to lower rates, which will lead to an average monthly saving of $2.89 for residential customers from 2026 to 2028.

The Southern Environmental Law Center estimates that the average household in Georgia Power will see an increase of $44 per month in their electric bills from 2022 to 2025. This increase is attributed to incremental base rate hikes and additional expenses.

“After the PSC vote on Tuesday, Codi Norred, the executive director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, expressed disappointment in the failure of the PSC to effectively protect Georgians’ health and finances. Norred highlighted the fact that Georgians already face some of the highest energy bills in the country, which continue to rise. This decision will have a particularly detrimental impact on vulnerable members of the community, such as older adults living on fixed incomes, who may be forced to endure dangerous temperatures this summer due to their inability to afford their energy bills. Norred emphasized that the approval of overpriced energy by the commission is simply unaffordable for the people of Georgia.”

Since 2019, a significant environmental dispute has revolved around a company’s intentions to extract heavy metals near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The state’s Environmental Protection Division approved Twin Pines’ permits to mine titanium, staurolite, and zircon along the Trail Ridge, despite facing opposition from the public. Over 70,000 comments were filed by the April deadline, with the majority expressing concerns about the impact of mining activities on the wetlands in the swamp that spans the Florida-Georgia border. The Trail Ridge is recognized as a crucial barrier safeguarding these valuable wetlands.

Community activists in northeast Madison and Franklin counties collaborated in 2020 to urge lawmakers to prohibit biomass plants from using creosote-soaked railroad crossties as a source of electricity.

In December 2022, a community group in south Georgia received support from the Southern Environmental Law Center in their efforts to negotiate more robust public health safeguards. This was achieved through a settlement with a company intending to construct a wood pellet plant in Cook County, a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Black and Hispanic residents.

According to Van Rossum, the green movement’s early achievements can be attributed to a significant Pennsylvania Supreme Court case in 2013. The case resulted in the overturning of a state law that sought to eliminate local zoning control over fracking, an unregulated oil and gas drilling technique that is believed to pose a threat to waterways.

The state’s highest court quickly recognized the validity of a constitutional amendment passed in 1971, which affirmed citizens’ environmental rights and deemed it legally binding in policy decisions.

According to Van Rossum, making progress towards equal protection for environmental rights in Georgia may not always be easy. However, she believes that even incremental progress can lead to significant changes.

Georgia legislators passing a ballot referendum measure that is subsequently approved by Georgia voters is the requirement for a two-thirds majority of Georgia legislators to enact constitutional amendments. These amendments are not frequently seen due to the rigorous process involved in their approval.

According to van Rossum, if government officials genuinely care about environmental protection, they will support and embrace the green amendment. They will view it as a valuable tool to fulfill their responsibility in safeguarding the environment and the communities they serve.

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MBS Staff
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