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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.

The South River was named one of the nation’s 10 most endangered rivers by American Rivers because of raw sewage DeKalb County allows to leak into the river. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

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.

A diverse group of river enthusiasts joined in South River Paddle’s 2019 excursion. Jackie Echols (center) serves as board chair of the South River Watershed Alliance. Credit: South River Watershed Alliance

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:

The Buffalo National River was protected from the wastes produced by industrial hog farming with help from river advocates nationwide after a national outpouring of support following the river’s inclusion in American River’s most-endangered listings in 2017 and 2019. Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism [flickr] via americanrivers.org

  • “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.

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David Pendered

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Margaret Spalding April 15, 2021 11:31 am

    Please join the South River Watershed Alliance at SouthRiverGa.org
    Take action by writing EPA today! Go to SouthRiverGa.org/take-action !Report

    Reply
  2. Eddie Lanham June 29, 2021 6:46 am

    I do not understand what the South River issue has to do with the new voting law. Also you mentioned the “Black” communities???Report

    Reply

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