ATLANTA -- Georgia is adopting a "zero tolerance" policy against water polluters in metro Atlanta, the state's environmental chief said.
Anyone polluting the waters of the Chattahoochee and other rivers in the region can expect swift and severe penalties and a demand for immediate correction of problems, state Environmental Protection Division Director Harold Reheis said Wednesday.
Reheis was backed up by the state Board of Natural Resources, which adopted a resolution pledging to give him and his agency "the support and resources" necessary for strict enforcement of environmental laws. The board said the Chattahoochee, because of its importance to the metro area, should be of special attention and focus by the EPD.
"We want this (resolution) to be a strong commitment to protect Georgia's water, air and land resources," said Joe Beverly of Thomasville, chairman of the Natural Resources Board.
Reheis told the board that the EPD is redirecting its workforce to increase water pollution enforcement in metro Atlanta. He said an undetermined number of enforcement personnel will be brought in from other areas of the state.
Reheis has sent a letter to top elected officials and operators of sewage and water treatment plants in 14 counties notifying them of the "zero tolerance" policy. Those counties include Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Rockdale and Spalding.
But he noted that the city of Atlanta is by far the biggest single polluter of the Chattahoochee because of its dysfunctional sewage treatment plants and cracked and broken sewer lines. The city has paid more than $19 million in fines since 1992 because of its pollution.
Officials with the EPD, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper are negotiating with city officials to work out a series of schedules and technology requirements to fix the city's problems. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash says he wants the various parties to reach an agreement by March 1.
Reheis said the city will be asked to sign a consent decree setting deadlines and technology requirements. City officials declined to comment because of the pending legal action.
Meanwhile, the EPD said it will call for gas stations in 43 North Georgia counties to sell only low-sulfur gasoline and diesel fuel by the summer of 1999 to reduce smog levels in metro Atlanta.
Reheis said the low-sulfur fuel will cause cars to run cleaner and reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, which combine with hydrocarbons on hot, sunny days to form ozone, the main component of smog. High smog levels, which occur 11 days on the average in metro Atlanta during the summer, can cause respiratory maladies and worsen chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease and lung ailments.
The EPD said automobiles and other "mobile sources" are responsible for 53 percent of NOx emissions in the metro area. Reheis said 43 counties are being included in the plan, to ensure that metro car owners aren't tempted to cross county lines to buy regular fuel.
He told the resources board that the low-sulfur fuel is expected to add only about a penny per gallon to the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel. Oil companies already produce low-sulfur fuel and should have no trouble shipping ample supplies to the state, he said.
But Kelley Coty of the Georgia Association of Petroleum Retailers said the increase could be higher. "Oil companies have a track record of using these kinds of mandates as an excuse for raising (wholesale) prices to dealers," he said.
The low-sulfur gasoline proposal is a component of EPD's plan for reducing ozone levels in metro Atlanta by 1999, as required by the EPA. A draft of the plan will be submitted to EPA next week, and a final version will be submitted in April.
Georgia stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway construction funds and could face other penalties if metro Atlanta doesn't meet EPA's ozone standards by 1999.