Jud Turner, Gov. Nathan Deal’s choice to head the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, will officially succeed EPD Director Allen Barnes in the new year. At Wednesday’s meeting of the state Natural Resources Board, Turner pledged to “adopt the policies of his predecessor in trying to keep economic development coming into the state while regulating its impact on the environment.”
The reaction of Georgia’s environmental community was almost certainly less than enthusiastic. And that skepticism might ultimately have less to do with Turner’s qualifications and values (or with those of his predecessor) than with the years-old conflict inherent in the agency he has been tapped to lead.
Barnes, who has led the EPD for slightly more than two years after succeeding Columbus native Carol Couch, acknowledged his conflicts with environmentalists but said part of the office’s responsibility is “to find that balance between a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment.”
Turner echoed the observation: “There is a balance, as Allen has talked about, between economic sustainability and environmental sustainability.”
Of course such a balance is essential, in Georgia and everywhere else. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that while both economic development and environmental protection are critical, an agency officially titled the Environmental Protection Division should be primarily – perhaps exclusively – concerned with the latter.
The fact that Georgia’s top-ranking environmental watchdog is expected to concern himself/herself with economics, beyond the obvious responsibility of managing the department’s budget, goes to the chronic structural dysfunction of this part of state government. And that structural problem goes all the way back to the Carter administration. (That’s Jimmy Carter the governor, not Carter the later president.)
As part of a well-intentioned and efficiency-minded reorganization of state government, EPD was placed under the Department of Natural Resources, largely an economic development agency. As the decades have gone by, the tension between industrial and environmental interests – a familiar tension, but in Georgia one that plays out under the same bureaucratic roof – has made the merger look more and more like a shotgun wedding.
Environmental protectors should be protecting the environment – period. Surely there are ample forces in Georgia government to effect that balance to which the current and future EPD directors alluded. (Rest assured that in the Georgia General Assembly, business interests will be devoutly represented.)
Turner, like Barnes before him, would have a tough enough job just protecting Georgia’s precious and beautifully diverse environment. Having to worry about economic growth as well shouldn’t be part of his mission. But until Georgia leaders rethink the role and importance of environmental protection, EPD is destined to remain a second-tier bureaucracy.