When it comes to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, one might be justified in asking exactly what it is the agency is protecting these days.
Not long after one of the biggest fish kills in the Ogeechee River in memory — a disaster that was contributed to by the agency’s inability to enforce rules and keep textile manufacturer King America Finishing from dumping dangerous chemicals into the river — we learn EPD leadership intends to change the way it enforces a protective 25-foot buffer zone along the coastal marshes.
In essence, the agency is reinterpreting the Erosion and Sedimentation Act, a 20-year-old law requiring the 25-foot “vegetated buffer” along state waters to both filter stormwater and slow erosion.
In the past, the buffer existed along an EPD jurisdiction line that required the presence of only one of 14 species of marsh plants, or the presence of “marsh peat deposits within the estuarine area,” said an April 22 memo from EPD Director Judson H. Turner.
But now, if there is no “wrested vegetation,” or vegetation wrested by tidal stream flow or wave action, then the EPD says there is no buffer. Period.
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad, and so potentially devastating to a state and national treasure. So it’s no surprise the measure has drawn wide condemnation from environmentalists ranging from the Center for a Sustainable Coast to 100 Miles to the Georgia River Network and various riverkeeper organizations.
They’ve reason to be concerned. Georgia’s saltwater marshes consist of about 400,000 acres and constitute one-third of that left on the East Coast. The marshes provide habitat for a number of plant and animal species and protect Georgia’s shoreline from erosion and flooding. They’re also economically important for a variety of industries, ranging from commercial and recreational fishing to tourism.
Turner, a lawyer who knows the devil is in the details, doesn’t have a hard science background in environmental issues. He’s been executive counsel for former Gov. Sonny Perdue and has had a hand in two firms that represent clients dealing with the government.
But if Turner’s interpretation of the Erosion and Sedimentation Act as spelled out in his Earth Day memo, which he’s said publicly will make Georgia’s buffers easier to enforce, is misguided at best, he’s exactly right on one count:
This isn’t a problem that will be solved by a memo. Given the area’s importance to the U.S. — which could see a third of its remaining East Coast marshes threatened — it’s a problem that will require a much bigger solution.