Georgia Legislature takes a pass on coal ash, protects landowners from petro pipelines

By David Pendered

The recent session of the Georgia Legislature protected water and property rights, but didn’t address coal ash waste and other water concerns, according to the wrap-up by the Georgia Water Coalition, which represents more than 230 organizations.

No Palmetto Pipeline

Savannah-area residents joined a protest rally against the Palmetto Pipeline in April 2015. In May 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal ssaid the state would fight the proposed pipeline. File/Credit: richmondhillsreflectionslive.com

The property rights issue involves the construction or expansion of petroleum pipelines. House Bill 413 addresses a number of issues that arose during the debate over the proposed Palmetto Pipeline, which Georgia halted before it was built along the Savannah River.

The bill, yet to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, provides for the executive director of the state Environmental Protection Division to issue a permit before any pipeline construction can begin. A permit is required even if a pipeline is being routed through property where owners grant easement.

A new public notice requirement calls for each landowner within 1,000 of the proposed route of the new pipeline to receive the following notice:

  • ‘YOUR PROPERTY IS LOCATED WITHIN 1,000 FEET OF A PROPOSED PETROLEUM PIPELINE FOR WHICH AN APPLICATION FOR A PERMIT HAS BEEN FILED PURSUANT TO CHAPTER 17 OF TITLE 12 OF THE OFFICIAL CODE OF GEORGIA ANNOTATED….”

Ogeechee Riverkeeper Emily Kurilla, observed in a statement:

  • “A bipartisan group of senators and representatives showed great leadership. They represented their constituents’ concerns about the overreach of private petroleum companies and corporations’ ability to use eminent domain to claim people’s land. Rep. Jon Burns, Rep. Al Williams, Sen. Rick Jeffares, Sen. Jack Hill, Sen. John Kennedy,  Sen. Ben Watson, Sen. Jesse Stone, Sen. William Ligon, and Sen. Blake Tillery provided critical leadership on this issue. Their efforts ultimately resulted in a strong bill that protects property and water. We thank them and encourage Governor Deal to sign HB 413.”

A bill opposed by the coalition failed to pass.

The Georgia Legislature did not pass a bill that would have redefined the term, 'sand dune,' such as these dunes on Tybee Island. The new definition would have enabled homes to be built 25 feet from the high water mark. Credit: fineartamerica.com

The Georgia Legislature did not pass a bill that would have redefined the term, ‘sand dune,’ such as these dunes on Tybee Island. The new definition would have enabled homes to be built 25 feet from the high water mark. Credit: fineartamerica.com

House Bill 271 would have redefined sand dunes as they are described in the state’s Shore Protection Act. The new definition would have allowed homes to be built 25 feet from the ordinary high water mark of the Atlantic Ocean. The bill will remain viable in the 2018 legislation session. Coalition members intend to continue their opposition next year.

Mixed progress was reported on the coal ash issue.

Bills that intended to increase regulation of the toxic substance failed to pass both chambers and remain for consideration in the 2018 legislation. However, the state did create a website to inform the public of Georgia Power’s plans to drain coal ash ponds.

“We made important headway on access to information about toxic coal waste in our communities,” Kurilla said. “But communities and families remain vulnerable to pollution from this toxic waste.”

A setback for the coalition involved the required distance between a stream and a development.

The coalition wants the Legislature to respond to a 2015 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court. The court ruled that the buffer be measured only from the point of “wrested vegetation.” That term is defined in state law as vegetation that has been affected by flowing water, thereby creating a mark between water flow and vegetative growth.

Plant McDonough, coal ash

Georgia Power completed the conversion of Plant McDonough from coal to natural gas Oct. 28, 2016. The power company has started dewatering a pond where coal ash was stored. File/Credit: power-eng.com

The coalition noted that:

  • “[N]ot all waterways have wrested vegetation, which leaves many of the state’s creeks, rivers, and lakes without a protected buffer.  Furthermore, the high court said this problem can be fixed only by the legislature.”

Of note, the buffer is 25 feet for most streams. The buffer is 50 feet for cold water trout streams in North Georgia.

“Buffers are the most cost-effective tool to keep our water clean and protect property rights,” Chris Manganiello, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper water policy director, said in the statement. “There is a solution to this problem.”

The Legislature has created a study committee that is to meet and present findings by the end of this year.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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