Staff losses and leaner budgets continue to complicate the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s critical enforcement roles, according to the agency’s director.
“Water, land and air are all important and are all part of what we do,” said Judson Turner, who spoke Monday to the Columbia County and Augusta chambers of commerce.
The agency, charged with enforcing a host of federal and state environmental laws and permitting programs, is operating with just 850 workers, down from 1,100 in 2008.
“We’re looking at a new normal here, and we have to find a way to manage that,” Turner said, adding that yet another budget cut – totaling 3 percent – is on the horizon this year.
One new strategy could include a streamlined approach to industrial permitting that would affect thousands of factories, sewage dischargers, drinking-water plants and mines.
Currently, state workers administer those permits, he said.
“We’re looking at something where we could perhaps allow permittees to pay for part of that, through a third-party contract,” he said, noting that fewer resources does not change EPD’s regulatory obligations.
“As we are asked to do more with less, we would move more from doing the work to an oversight kind of position,” he said.
Until changes are made to increase efficiency, staffers will continue to manage state permits and investigate violations.
One of the major cases the agency has responded to involved a 2011 fish kill along the Ogeechee River. A Screven County textile plant, King America Finishing, agreed to a state consent order in which it acknowledged dumping unpermitted sewage into the river.
As a condition of the order, the company was required to spend $1 million on environmental improvements along the Ogeechee.
Though environmental groups are critical of the state’s actions and have taken the matter to court, Turner said he is proud of the consent order.
“It was the largest fine in Georgia and structured in a way that it would be spent on supplemental environmental projects – instead of the money just being sent to a state fund,” he said.
Also, a new permit issued in August that allows King America to continue to discharge waste into
the Ogeechee was strengthened to ensure the river will be protected, he said.
Among the provisions, the company must continually monitor its treated wastewater for pH levels, with an alarm system to alert operators to problems; and monitor dissolved oxygen to maintain levels of
5 parts per million at all times.
The stricter permit will enable the plant, which employs about 450 workers, to remain in operation, but under heightened scrutiny.
“Our job is to protect the environment first, but also to consider what is the right balance with economic development,” Turner said.