UPDATE Dec. 6 at 1:29 p.m.: The Georgia Environmental Protection Division received approval this morning to move forward on an amendment to the Narrative Water Quality Standard.
The process now moves to a public comment period which runs through Jan. 31.
Those interested in providing comments can do so by emailing email@example.com or by mailing comments to 2 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Suite 1152, Atlanta, GA 30334.
A two-word change to a more-than-40-year-old water regulation in Georgia would have harmful implications for the health of all of the state's waterways, an environmental group warns, but regulators argue the change would not adversely impact the state and is needed to uphold the spirit of the rule.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is proposing to amend the Narrative Water Quality Standard that regulates industry waste.
The amendment would add the word "unreasonably" and change "legitimate" to "designated." The revised regulation, which deals with the color and odor of discharge, would read as such:
"All waters shall be free from material related to municipal, industrial or other discharges which produce turbidity, color, odor or other objectionable conditions which unreasonably interfere with designated water uses."
Southern Environmental Law Center communication manager Scott Smallwood wrote in an email, "Adding/changing these two words would have major ramifications that would apply to all waters statewide and give citizens less protection against toxic discharges."
The change stems from a 15-year dispute between Rayonier Advanced Materials and Altamaha Riverkeeper over discharge from Rayonier's Jesup mill into the Altamaha River in Georgia.
The law center challenged the ruling and an administrative law judge pulled Rayonier's Clean Water Act permit. The ruling was challenged and eventually overturned.
Now, the Environmental Protection Division is hoping to reword the rule to make sure that interpretation is not used again, because they believe it could put every discharger in the state at risk, said Jack Capp, chief of Watershed Protection Branch for Georgia EPD.
"The interpretation that they are promoting and trying to run with is essentially this interpretation that if somebody doesn't like it, then the water quality standard isn't being met," Capp said.
The EPD is concerned if the interpretation were to hold, anyone could complain about any discharge point and cause the company's permit to be at risk.
The Board of Natural Resources will be briefed on the issue at its board meeting this morning at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris, Ga.
The meeting will start a public comment period that will run through Jan. 31. If there's a vote on the change, it likely will take place in March, Capp said.
Environmentalists warn a change would be a disservice to the public.
"It's a state changing a law we think at the behest of one corporation," Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney Hutton Brown said. "We think the state is catering to a particular business over Georgia citizens."
Capp said that isn't the case.
"Our position all along in applying this standard is to apply a reasonableness to it, and we interpret the standard in the context of the designated use," he said. "With the clarification that we're making here, we're just making our interpretation crystal clear. So from our perspective there's no change in stringency of the standard at all."
Those interested in providing comments can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by mailing their comments to 2 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Suite 1152, Atlanta, GA 30334.