Rotary Club of Richmond Hill members learned Thursday about recent efforts by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and state lawmakers to help keep clean water flowing in Georgia.
During the group’s weekly meeting at the Richmond Hill City Center, Emily Markesteyn, executive director of the organization, updated the group on the Riverkeeper’s work with state officials during the 2013 legislative session on House Bill 549, which seeks more protection for Georgia waterways.
“I’m happy to report this past legislative session, which just ended in March, I worked really hard with our elected officials on implementing a bill on emergency response to pollution spills in our waterways,” she told the group.
The bill would put in place a mandate requiring the state Environmental Protection Division to respond to and investigate a pollution spill into a waterway in a “timely manner,” she said, and also ensure coordination between state and local emergency response teams, such as fire departments.
As an example, she told the group about a 2010 chemical spill in Trail Creek in Oconee County — a result of a fire at a nearby chemical plant. The local fire department responded to the fire, she said, and when using water to extinguish the fire, chemicals ran down into the creek, turning it “toilet bowl blue,” she said.
“We just figured if EPD had a proper response team they would have been there, and they would have already hopefully educated the fire department in what to do,” in a situation like that, Markesteyn said. “And they would have highlighted certain industries or areas that were potential spill zones, they would have trained them on how to respond and something like this wouldn’t have happened.”
Although there is no current law requiring EPD to respond to pollution spills within a certain time frame, Markesteyn added the state’s response team for such emergencies used to consist of 11 full-time employees. Due to budget cuts and other reasons, the team had been reduced to four part-time employees that respond to spills throughout Georgia, she said.
Unfortunately, Markesteyn said, the bill was not introduced in time to be passed in the 2013 session, which means it will have to wait until the next legislative session to become law.
Despite not making to the floor for a vote, she said the Georgia Environmental Protection Division is in favor of the bill, along with several other water protection agencies.
“Overall I think it’s a win-win for everybody … Everyone spoke in favor of the bill and we’re looking to have it voted on and approved in the House next session,” she said. “We’re also looking for a senator or two to carry it over in the Senate as well. We’ve already been speaking to Buddy Carter (R-Pooler), and he’s on board as well as Jesse Stone, who is from Waynesboro.”
The bill was introduced in the House by state Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, and co-sponsored by Reps. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet, Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, Ben Watson, R-Savannah, Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, and Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, Markesteyn said.
“So next time you see Ron (Stephens) or speak to him, please thank him on our behalf and for choosing to put clean water as a priority for our legislators,” she said.
Markesteyn also gave a brief update about the King America Finishing case, noting the Screven County textiles plant is still discharging into the Ogeechee River.
The plant in 2006 started two new processing lines, she said, and hooked discharge from those lines into the plant’s wastewater line and did not seek additional permitting.
“Instead of the state of Georgia saying ‘Whoa, wait a minute, we don’t know what that is that you’re discharging, please stop until you get the proper paperwork and the proper permit done,’ the state decided to let them continue discharging,” she said. “To this day they are discharging without a permit and it’s illegal.”
Markesteyn said the next public hearing for the second draft of King Finishing’s discharge permit is set for 7 p.m. May 7 at Effingham County High School. To view the draft, visit www.gaepd.org/Documents/whats_new.html.