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David Pendered Columns

Volunteer environmental groups: Formidable force for Chattahoochee, South rivers

David Pendered
quarry, wetlands. Credit: Brian and Shanda Cook

By David Pendered

Volunteer environmentalists are fighting two separate battles to keep pollution out of the Chattahoochee River and South River, the two biggest waterways in metro Atlanta.

The South River, seen here at Panola Shoals, transports untreated sewage that leaks from DeKalb County’s sewerage system. Volunteer environmentalists seek to compel DeKalb to halt the leaks. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

The two rivers are at a crucial moment because of looming decisions that could affect, for generations, the rivers and those who rely on them.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this session on the lawsuit filed by Florida to compel Georgia to alter its use of waters of the Chattahoochee River. A U.S. District Court judge in Atlanta is reviewing a pending federal consent decree that spells out state and federal requirements for DeKalb County to fix its broken and leaking sewer system, which flows into the South River.

This is the political and environmental arena in which concerned citizens have come together to further their efforts to protect the rivers. Neither group has deep pockets, nor the tools to wage a high profile persuasion campaign. They do have passion.

“They are the first responders,” Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, said Monday. “They are the eyewitnesses that see the signs of a quarry that might go in, the tires paving the bottom of the South River. When they see something going on, it strikes fear – as well it should. When you’re worried about something, you call in friends to help.”

quarry, wetlands

Wetlands located along the Chattahoochee River would be impacted by a proposed rock quarry, according to an application filed by the developer. Volunteer environmentalists are trying to halt the quarry. File/Credit: Brian and Shanda Cook

Tonya Spinks volunteers with Citizens Opposed to Carroll County Rock Quarry, a group that formed in July to oppose a proposed rock quarry on a site next to the Chattahoochee River. This matter is not related to the Florida lawsuit. The quarry owners seek state and local approval to dig for rock in Carroll County, across the river from south Fulton County. Three creeks flow across the property and into the river. Spinks wrote Monday in an email:

  • “The proposed rock quarry along the banks of the beautiful Chattahoochee River would be detrimental to our community, which is a quiet agricultural area.  This quarry simply is not appropriate where it is proposed. It will result in the possible loss of wetlands, pollution to Chattahoochee River, damaged air quality, decrease of property values, as well as many other concerns.  The citizens in this community chose to live in this quiet area along the river. The noise, pollution, additional traffic on our two-lane roads, and all the industrial activities that come from a quarry would be devastating to our community.
  • “We want to maintain our rural way of living.”

Jackie Echols serves as president of South River Watershed Alliance. The alliance was formed in 1999 and has a shoestring budget for efforts that include compelling DeKalb County to fix broken sewer pipes that leak raw sewage that finds its way to the South River. The group has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta the dismissal of its federal lawsuit that sought to require DeKalb to fix all leaking sewers, not just those in an area identified in a 2011 consent decree, which is now pending review in federal court. Echols wrote Monday in an email:

  • “Ten years ago, I asked myself what it was about the South River that made it OK to pollute this particular river. What was it about this river that caused federal and state regulators to turn a blind eye to the ongoing pollution? I still don’t know the answer to these questions, but I was certain of the opportunity that the DeKalb County Consent Decree offered. Yes, it was weak, but more importantly it had the force of the Clean Water Act behind it and I was not going to forego this once in a lifetime opportunity to help this river. The expectation is that we will run out of energy and go away, and sometimes that happens, but even then, you know you have been in one heck of a fight.
  • “Volunteer environmental organizations can be a formidable adversary.”
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David Pendered
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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