Originally created 06/04/99

Proposed bill would allow water lawsuit



Federal legislation that would force the Army Corps of Engineers to improve water quality in the Savannah River and other waterways will be resurrected in the House later this summer.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., is seeking support from governors and attorney generals in all 50 states for a bill that would waive the federal government's sovereign immunity from the federal Clean Water Act.

Locally, the Corps operates Thurmond Dam 22 miles upstream from Augusta. The water released into the Savannah River is low in oxygen because the turbine intakes tap oxygen depleted layers of water 60 feet below the lake's surface.

A 1996 Georgia Department of Natural Resources study concluded the dam's discharges fail federal clean water standards five to six months of the year, hampering fish growth 15 miles downstream.

"Under this type of bill, the state would have the right to force the Corps to bring up the oxygen content, either by building a weir dam or releasing water over the spillway," said John Stone, Mr. Norwood's spokesman.

Weir dams use obstructions in flowing water to create turbulence and add oxygen.

Although private industries, such as Georgia Power Company and the S.C. Electric & Gas Company, must comply with the Clean Water Act, federal agencies can waive such requirements, Mr. Stone said.

Georgia Power, for example, installed a weir dam to send oxygenated water over its Oconee Dam project to insure that its discharges met minimum oxygen requirements, he said.

The minimum dissolved oxygen standard in Georgia and South Carolina is 5 milligrams per liter. Readings in the Savannah River as far downstream as the Fury's Ferry Road bridge drop as low as 1.8 during hot weather.

The corps has agreed to add turbine vents -- engineering features to improve dissolved oxygen content downstream -- as it moves ahead with a $69.7 million renovation of Thurmond Dam's 45-year-old turbines.

Although the turbine vents would enhance oxygen content, it won't be nearly enough to bring the project into the same environmental compliance that private companies must adhere to, Mr. Stone said.

"Even with the vented turbines, that alone would not pull Thurmond Dam up to full compliance," Mr. Stone said. "They say it will raise dissolved oxygen 1.5 to 2 points, but that would still be well below the average of 5."

The planned legislation, entitled the Federal Accountability for the Clean Environment Act, is a resurrected and expanded version of a bill introduced last year by Rep. Dan Schafer of Colorado, Mr. Stone said.

"When this same bill was out last year, we had 39 signatories from governors and attorneys general all over the country," Mr. Stone said. "We're going back to those same people for support."

Robert Pavey covers environmental issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.