Georgia's toxic sites await cleanup as funds are diverted

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia has more than 500 hazardous sites in need of costly cleanup, but an analysis of state spending shows that it routinely shorts the trust fund that's supposed to pay for them.

Less than half of the $14.5 million in fees the state collects on average for hazardous waste cleanup annually is spent on that need, a WSB-TV analysis of state budget figures shows. The rest goes into Georgia's general fund for other purposes.

"We find that a lot of people had no idea this was going on," said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman with the Georgia Water Coalition. The issue of the hazardous waste sites was included in the Georgia Water Coalition's publication, "Dirty Dozen: 2017's Worst Offenses Against Georgia's Water."

"We know for a fact that there's a tremendous backlog of hazardous waste sites that are not receiving the remediation that they need," Demonbreun-Chapman added.

There are 528 sites on Georgia's cleanup list, ranging from closed dry-cleaning businesses to old landfills.

The trust fund was created in the 1990s to clean sites deemed hazardous by the state, but money collected first goes to the state's general fund. Then, lawmakers appropriate how much of the money goes toward cleanup each year.

On average, a little more than 40 percent of money collected is budgeted to the Georgia's Environmental Protection Division's Land Branch, which administers the fund and another for solid waste.

The EPD's Land Branch Chief Jeff Cown said his department doesn't need extra funds to clean up the state's hazardous waste sites.

Cown said the state is currently responsible for cleaning up a 36 of the 528 sites on the list - sites abandoned by the property owners. Contractors around the state perform the actual cleaning. The money is also used to administer the project.

On average, 11 hazardous sites come off the list each year, but an average of eight new sites are added in the same span. There are 166 sites that have been on the state's list since it was created in 1994.

Currently, just 10 sites are being remediated, WSB-TV reported.

Tonya Bechtler with the Yellow River Water Trail balked at the idea that the state doesn't need more funding to clean up hazardous waste sites.

"If they've got that extra money please send it to Newton County," Bechtler told the Atlanta TV station.

Newton County's landfill is one of 130 landfills on the state's hazardous site list. Bechtler said the site's proximity to the Yellow River makes ground water contamination a big environmental risk.