'Soil police' spread very thin on job

Associated Press
Alice Champagne stands in front of a construction site that was shut down for being too close to a stream in Atlanta. Ms. Champagne is an Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper staff member.

ATLANTA - Navigating a patch of sodden soil just off a busy north Atlanta road, Alice Champagne is in search mode. She points to the foundation of a mansion built too close to a stream and a silt fence that needs to be wider.


Ms. Champagne, an Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper staffer, had hoped seeking out erosion red flags would be a bit easier by now. Four years ago, Georgia lawmakers set up a fee system to finance a team of 80 erosion control inspectors who would rove the state to make sure developers were keeping soil out of water.

Today, only 35 of the soil enforcement officers promised are on the state's payroll. And as lawmakers consider Gov. Sonny Perdue's budget recommendations, which would add $300,000 for six new positions, environmentalists are concerned the changes are still not enough.

The legislation, which was overwhelmingly approved in 2003, set up an $80 per-acre fee charged to developers. The money is split between local authorities and the state, raising roughly $3.6 million each year. But only a constitutional amendment can guarantee where the money goes, meaning it's up for grabs each year when the Legislature debates the budget.

It remains to be seen whether legislators will fully fund the program. Lynn Smith, the chairwoman of the House's Natural Resources and Environment Committee, vowed to investigate the funding shortfall. Since the state's soil investigators are supplemented by local staffers, she said she wants to see how the resources are being used.

Watchdog groups have helped fill the gap where inspectors are stretched thin.

Ms. Champagne said volunteers from Riverkeeper and other groups monitor work sites and field complaints. In 2006, her group fielded more than 300 water-related complaints, roughly a third of which were erosion-related.