A negotiated settlement to a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will change the way environmental regulators evaluate pollution in Georgia waterways - including the Savannah River.
"Basically, it is a new way of thinking that has not been used," said Doug Haines, a lawyer with the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest, a watchdog organization that sued the EPA in 1994.
The group's complaint alleged the EPA failed to carry out its duties involving identifying and improving impaired waters.
The settlement includes provisions for calculating "maximum daily loads," or the amount of pollution a waterway can absorb and still sustain aquatic life and be safe for fishing and swimming.
Most industrialized areas - like Augusta - include many industries and municipal sewage plants, each with a permit to dump a certain amount of wastewater into waterways.
Mr. Haines said the existing regulatory system fails to consider the cumulative impact of multiple permit holders in one area.
"Even if every one of those permit holders was achieving its permit limits, that water can still be so heavily overloaded that you have a problem," he said.
Under the settlement, EPA will require Georgia authorities to establish maximum daily loads of contaminants for all Georgia waters that can be characterized as "impaired."
The Savannah River, impacted by dozens of industries and sewage plants, likely will be among the first major waterways to be evaluated, Mr. Haines said.
"The Savannah is the basin everyone will look at. How that turns out will help us figure out how to study the other ones," he said. "It's the best basin in the state to help figure out how we address other areas in the state, and other states, for that matter."
Using maximum daily loads to evaluate waterways will give a clearer picture of the impacts of pollution, Mr. Haines said,
"Rather than focus on individual polluters, you look at the quality of the water itself," he said. "You look at whether it can achieve its uses; and how much pollutant the water can take, both at high and low flows."
If the scrutiny indicates a river can't handle the load placed upon it by multiple users, adjustments can be made to the permit holders, Mr. Haines said, adding, however, that it is impossible to regulate non-point sources of pollution, such as storm water and agricultural runoff.
Yvonne Martin, an environmental scientist in EPA's Atlanta regional office, said Georgia's Environmental Protection Division regulates water quality in Georgia on EPA's behalf.
The plaintiffs contended EPD was not adequately identifying impaired waters, as required under the federal Clean Water Act. The agreement to settle includes evaluating how such waters are identified and recommending improvements.
The Savannah River is among the nation's most heavily industrialized rivers. Each day, the river and its tributaries near Augusta absorb about 66 million gallons of treated wastewater from municipal plants in three counties; and an additional 39 million gallons of wastewater from major industries.