Tonya Bonitatibus knew from the start that her job description was – at best – a moving target.
“Our role is always changing,” said the 31-year-old director of Savannah Riverkeeper. “It’s something even the environmental movement is trying to wrap its head around.”
The nonprofit group, whose membership has grown from 30 to more than 700 since 2009, is widely known for its volunteer-driven litter cleanups, kayak events and outreach programs to educate the public about the river’s many critical roles.
Beneath the surface, though, Savannah Riverkeeper and its six sister groups across Georgia are also stirring up their share of mud – as watchdogs and whistleblowers who are using the courts to challenge what they see as lax enforcement of environmental laws.
One catalyst for an upsurge in activism is the reduction of staff and funding for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, the state agency responsible for enforcing a host of compliance programs.
EPD director Judson Turner, who declined a request to be interviewed for this article, outlined the extent and impact of those cuts during a speech to Augusta and Columbia County chambers of commerce earlier this month.
The agency, he said, is operating with just 850 workers – down from 1,100 in 2008 – but the duties remain the same or in some cases have increased, and more cuts are on the way.
As oversight from regulators diminishes, the potential for problems increases.
“You could call it deregulation through defunding,” Bonitatibus said. “Most people don’t realize they are not being protected like they were in the past, and that in some cases, no one is doing any testing except the industries themselves.”
Locally, Savannah Riverkeeper is involved in several cases, including litigation against the proposed deepening of Savannah harbor and a local case in which Riverkeeper and Jones Creek Investors contend that various developers, landowners and Columbia County caused erosion and sedimentation damage to a golf course and nearby assets.
“We’re not fond of litigation, but whenever you’re taking on these kinds of things you usually do it as a group,” she said. “Some of these things have a lot of resources to come back after you — like David and Goliath. But if you have six Davids, you come out a little stronger.”
Savannah Riverkeeper, formed in 2001, is part of a network of almost 200 affiliated groups tied – at least by membership – to the Waterkeeper Alliance, founded in 1999 by environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“We don’t get money from them, and in fact pay them a licensing fee,” she said. “We operate pretty much on our own, but we do have some general standards to meet.”
With today’s shrinking government budgets and an economy that could push polluters to explore every loophole, Riverkeeper groups will have more to watch for, said Neill Herring, a veteran environmental lobbyist in Atlanta.
Riverkeepers never wanted the role of whistleblower, but have been forced into such duties by necessity.
“Riverkeepers don’t regard it as their duty to be regulators,” Herring said. “That’s the function of the state. You have a public resource, and the state is the steward of that resource – and it’s the state‘s job to protect it.”
Challenges to incomplete enforcement of environmental laws, he predicted, will continue to increase as the government’s oversight diminishes. “I don’t see how that would be avoidable, because these agencies are so non-responsive.”
Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers said Georgia’s regulators were once effective at cleaning up industrial and municipal wastewater.
“That was in the ’70s and early ’80s,” he said. “Systematically, since about 1984, the Legislature and several administrations have by design dismantled EPD. It’s all done through the budget process and by meddling in permitting and enforcement activities.”
The agency, he said, has been politicized and de-fanged, yet still has many hard working and qualified scientists who try to do their jobs with reduced resources.
“We’re at odds with them all the time, but it’s like tough love,” Rogers said. “Our ultimate goal is to rebuild the agency so it can do its job.”
EPD, however, is not likely to regain its previous staffing and funding levels, its director Turner said during his speech in Augusta. Instead, the agency’s leaders are exploring ways to adapt.
One new strategy, Turner said, 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 having 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.
One of the most widely known cases of Riverkeeper groups challenging state regulators involves the case of King America Finishing, a Screven County textile plant linked to a major 2011 fish kill on the Ogeechee River. The resulting investigation found that the plant was releasing unpermitted wastewater into the river.
Riverkeeper groups have continued to oppose the state’s proposed penalties against the company, contending they are far too lax. The matter remains in court, while EPD mulls a proposed new permit that would allow King America to remain in operation, with stricter monitoring rules, and finance $1 million in environmentally beneficial projects.
“We use every ethical and legal tool in the book: education and outreach, cleanups, paddles on the rivers, even talking to Kiwanis and Rotary groups,” Rogers said. “All of that is important, but so is working in the Legislature – and in the courtroom.”
Fighting those battles is slow and expensive – on both sides.
According to Herring, Georgia’s EPD headquarters recently added a new staff attorney – which he sees as a sign that the regulators anticipate more challenges.
The Riverkeeper groups, meanwhile, need funds to keep their cases in court. This Thursday, they are bringing environmental advocate Erin Brockovich to Atlanta for a $100-per-person fundraiser.
The proceeds, according to their flier, will be used to help pay for the law firm GreenLaw’s efforts on behalf of Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s case over the King America permit.