In recent years there has been a conspicuous weakening in the use of law to protect Georgia’s coastal environment. Although motives can be debated, the evidence is irrefutable, manifested in the state’s courts as well as the General Assembly and permitting agencies.
- A Georgia Supreme Court ruling early in 2014 determined that state agencies cannot be held legally accountable for deficient enforcement of environmental regulations – only individual agency staff-members involved can be sued for enforcement failures, and even then it would have to be proven that they had “malicious intent” to harm those affected. Collateral damage to marshes, shorelines, or wildlife caused by erroneous state permitting actions can no longer be used as the basis for legal action.
- The above decision came as a result of Georgia regulators using ‘letters of permission’ (LOPs) to allow disturbance and use of public resources by private parties, even though then-existing laws required public hearings, review assessments, and permits for such activities, which the LOPs circumvented. While our challenge of LOPs was being considered in court, the General Assembly adopted rules making legitimate what had been illegal. Since then, use of LOPs has outpaced permits, and individuals receiving LOPs can get approval for continuing their so-called ‘temporary’ activities indefinitely.
- Around the same time, the Georgia Court of Appeals severely limited the right of ‘third parties’ to challenge actions taken by state regulators under ‘consent orders’ – agreements between environmental violators and state agencies that have the authority to police such violations. Consent orders have been used to allow violations – such as seawalls built in the marsh buffer – to remain in place in exchange for an arbitrary cash penalty. In effect, this allows individuals to buy their way out of legal restrictions, yet the public cannot challenge such decisions.
- On Earth Day 2014 the director of DNR’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) declared that Georgia’s buffer law no longer applied to tidal marshes and other areas lacking ‘wrested vegetation’ – where shore-side plants are torn from the banks by flowing water. This finding was made despite the law’s clear intent to protect all waters of the state.
- A bill was drafted to reinstate the buffer along tidal marshes, but by the time that proposal was adopted by the General Assembly in March 2015 it was weakened by exemptions and revised wording that reduce protection intended. To make matters worse, the rules for implementing that marsh-buffer bill are extremely vague and therefore vulnerable to biased interpretation by regulators who are politically influenced. Those trying to prevent more rigorous buffer protections have asserted that we should not be telling regulators “how to do their job,” even though providing such guidance is a prime reason why regulatory rules exist.
- The latest act of malfeasance came in December, when DNR’s Shore Protection Committee voted [2 – 1] to approve a sand-trapping rock ‘groin’ extending over 350 feet into the ocean from the beach on the south end of Sea Island. The project was proposed by Sea Island Acquisition in attempting to market eight high-priced oceanfront lots on a narrow, rapidly eroding strand of land known as the Sea Island Spit. More than a hundred people and various organizations commented on the proposal, but only three supported it. Among the opposition were both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Non-Game Wildlife Resources Division of Georgia’s DNR. At risk is nesting habitat for endangered sea turtles and various migratory birds and sea-birds. Furthermore, well-qualified coastal geologists advised that the groin would worsen erosion and disrupt the ‘sand-sharing’ system that renourishes both beaches and near-shore sandbars that protect surrounding shorefront homes from storm surge, because the project will hold back sand along the project area and deflect it from natural patterns of movement. Despite these significant, well-reasoned objections, the project was approved. The permit is being appealed, and a federal permit (Corps of Engineers) is still under review.
Coastal Georgia has long enjoyed a reputation for having a well-protected, healthy natural environment. Our marshes, beaches, wildlife, and waterways deserve to be safeguarded because they sustain our quality of life as well as thousands of local jobs. When surveyed, coastal Georgians overwhelmingly reaffirm their concern for environmental quality.
Conversely, as evident from the above, political leadership in Georgia has other priorities that seriously threaten our coast’s future. It’s time for Georgians to demand better coastal protection in the voting booth and through the power of the media. Moreover, we must insist that development decisions are better informed and fairly balanced instead of favoring opportunistic, politically influential speculators.
David Kyler has been evaluating coastal Georgia environmental conditions and trends for nearly four decades. Twenty years before organizing the Center for a Sustainable Coast in 1997, David began his career as a regional planning analyst for the Coastal Area Planning and Development Commission, now the Coastal Regional Commission. He has written scores of positions papers, published editorials, and other analytical works about important coastal issues. The Center is a non-profit group that advocates responsible decisions that sustain coastal Georgia’s environment and quality of life. The organization depends on tax-deductible donations to provide well-reasoned defense of the public interest.”