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Bill would emphasize negotiations over fines for polluters
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ATLANTA — People accused of polluting Georgia's waterways would see more incentives to negotiate with state regulators under a bill approved Wednesday by a state Senate committee.

Republican Sen. Rick Jeffares said his bill would help local governments avoid making penalty payments for violating water pollution laws, such as when a sewage system malfunctions. He said local taxpayers ultimately pay the cost of penalties, which also reduce the money available to fix the root problem.

Environmental watchdog groups testified that his bill could weaken anti-pollution laws for larger industrial polluters and appears to emphasize settlements for pollution violations rather than stringent penalties.

"We want to get this stuff fixed — that's the bottom line," Jeffares told fellow members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment.

Jeffares said some small governments would rather pay a fine for pollution problems rather than for a more expensive solution.

Under his proposal, governments that reach a settlement with the state's Environmental Protection Division to fix a pollution problem could avoid fines if they posted a bond with the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority. If the local government failed to make the required repairs, it would lose its money.

The legislation would instruct the EPD director that he can inform people accused of polluting waterways of their chance to negotiate an agreement. Besides giving polluters a "reasonable schedule" for completing repairs, the EPD director would be allowed to grant an unlimited number of six-month extensions on the completion deadline.

"The pressure on the director" of the EPD "to yield to the polluter is increased by this bill," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

Herring said the bill as currently written would apply to anyone who pollutes, not just local governments.

Juliet Cohen, general counsel for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said lawmakers should limit the number of six-month extensions that could be granted and specify that negotiations are inappropriate during a crisis.

"There are some situations where drinking water supplies are threatened, fish and wildlife are threatened — which in many cases means jobs — public health is threatened, and these things should not be negotiated," Cohen said.

It remains unclear whether the bill will find support in the Senate.

Environmental groups recently sued the EPD for approving a $1 million settlement with a factory whose water pollution was blamed in part for a massive fish die-off in the Ogeechee River last year. Earlier this month, Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, and other lawmakers asked for independent pollution testing on that river, instead of self-reporting by polluters. The letter also asked the EPD to improve its response to future emergencies.


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