National spotlight shines on South River as example of environmental injustice
By David Pendered
The South River’s designation as an example of environmental injustice on American Rivers’ list of 10 most endangered rivers arrives as the nation focuses attention on Georgia for its revised and restrictive elections law.
American Rivers laid responsibility for the South River’s degradation squarely on the county, state and federal governments.
In a statement released with its annual report, “America’s Most Endangered Rivers – 2021,” the organization offered this observation of the federal consent decree that is to compel DeKalb County to stop the spillage of raw sewage to spill into waterways – estimated at 32 million gallons since 2014:
- “The plan leaves out too many communities – which are predominantly Black. Sewage pollution poses a public health threat, fouls homes and neighborhoods and harms property values. The county’s poor record in fixing the problem and the lenience from state and federal authorities only perpetuate this longstanding environmental injustice for south DeKalb neighborhoods and downstream communities.”
The South River’s position on the national list was made public Tuesday. The list had been compiled well in advance of corporate protests over Georgia’s new voting law.
Some civil rights groups contend the new law was intended to restrict voting access for Blacks and other people of color. Major League Baseball cited the new law, Senate Bill 202, in its April 2 announcement as its reason for pulling the All Star Game out of Cobb County.
To be clear, American Rivers did not mention SB 202 in its report.
Being named to the list puts a national spotlight on the South River. The public has rallied behind rivers that made previous lists.
The Okefenokee Swamp and St. Marys River made the 2020 list because of a proposed mine along the swamp. The citing was viewed as contributing to the submission of more than 60,000 public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers, which at the time was reviewing a permit application for the mine. The corps later determined it has no role in the permitting process. The matter is pending before the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
In Arkansas, a mail-in campaign helped close a 6,500-head hog processing operation along the Buffalo National River, in the state’s Ozarks region, according to local advocate Lin Wellford. Here’s how she describes, in a video that accompanies the 2021 list, the response after American Rivers listed the Buffalo National River in 2017 and 2019:
- “Even though this was a very well-known issue in Arkansas, having a spotlight nationally on a river that actually is a national treasure could only help our cause. So, I can’t tell you how much of a difference it made to our efforts.
- “I think it really made the politicians realize that this wasn’t going to be hidden. Eventually, the hog CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation], to our vast relief was shut down, and there is a moratorium in place that will prevent other such facilities from being built. Thank you, American Rivers, and thank you to all the people who support American Rivers and were part of the mail-in campaign that was heard and that did make a difference for us.”
South River Watershed Alliance, which is the river’s lead advocate, has filed a federal lawsuit to compel DeKalb County to stop allowing raw sewage to spill into the South River.
The matter is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Atlanta. The case was originally filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta and, when U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg dismissed the case in September 2020, the South River Watershed Alliance appealed the ruling.