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Legislative Wrap-Up: Sine die comes, goes

April 4, 2016

For the last three months, Georgia River Network devoted time, energy and resources to work on numerous legislative projects as a member of the Georgia Water Coalition.  During the 2016 General Assembly session, GRN worked intensively on HB 966, SB 36, SB 346 and SR 954.  While we did not witness positive movement on two priority issues—buffers (HB 966) and ground water (SB 36) protections—we did successfully arrest roll-backs and other measures.  Please read on to learn more.

The 2016 General Assembly officially came to a close on Thursday, March 24, also known as sine die, which means to adjourn without a date set for return.  Truth be told, legislators did not conclude their business until after midnight in the early hours of Friday morning.

To view the outcome of legislative proposals and vote counts to see how your legislators voted, click on the bill number below.  Additionally, you can visit the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s helpful “Georgia Legislative Navigator” tool:

Measures Now Awaiting Action by Gov. Nathan Deal

What’s next for the bills?  Governor Nathan Deal has 40 days to: sign a bill; veto a bill; or take no action.  In the event the Governor takes no action, a bill becomes law 40 days after passage of both chambers.

HB 1028 & HR 1872: Leaky Landfills & Coal Ash

House Bill 1028 will require the owner or operator of a municipal solid waste landfill to notify local city and county governments of “any release…which is likely to pose a danger to human health” within 14 days.  While this is an improvement over existing requirements, unfortunately, the bill gives the owners or operators a lot of discretion regarding when and what to report.

This bill was a response to the discovery of groundwater contamination at a Wayne County landfill that has been accepting and processing coal ash from a Florida utility.  Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division identified the contamination in 2011 but is not legally required to publicly disclose those releases.  The Wayne County situation came to light after a proposal to expand the landfill to accept more coal ash was made public.  As a result, House Resolution 1872 was introduced to will create a House Study Committee on Coal Ash to evaluate coal ash disposal, reuse and effects on Georgians.  The measure failed to pass.

The study committee’s action would have been will be timely given Georgia Power’s announcement to shutter 29 toxic coal ash storage ponds, and EPD’s plans to establish coal ash closure regulations in 2016.

HB 1036: Prohibition of Eminent Domain

House Bill 1036 is a response to Kinder Morgan’s proposed Palmetto Pipeline.  Kinder Morgan asserts that as a consequence the company suspended the project last week.  The proposed pipeline would transport petroleum (gasoline) products through Georgia from South Carolina to Florida.

HB 1036 will institute a moratorium on activities associated with pipeline construction through June 30, 2017.  This includes a moratorium on the use of eminent domain for pipeline construction.  And, state employees are prohibited processing and issuing “any approval, permit, or document necessary for the construction of” any pipeline until July 1.

Additionally, the bill calls for the creation of a study commission to investigate the impacts of pipeline construction, operation and safety; the current legal and regulatory framework associated with pipelines; eminent domain powers; and provide recommendations to the legislature.

SB 346: Bulldozing Cultural & Natural Resources

Senate Bill 346 will exempt “a project of a department, municipality, county, or authority to construct or improve a public road or airport does not exceed $100 million in costs” from Georgia Environmental Policy Act (GEPA) review if they are state funded, with no federal money, up to $100 million.

We oppose roll-backs like SB 346 and never supported the bill’s underlying intent to gut GEPA.  GRN actively supported efforts to successfully amend the bill in the House Transportation Committee to adequately protect historic buildings, sites, or resources.

SR 954: Sinkhole Trail Giveaway

Senate Resolution 954 is part of an annual affair to grants easements on state property to for-profit corporations and state agencies for the construction, operation, and maintenance of facilities, utilities, and roads.

When SR 954 reached the House, a single section was added including grants for easements on state property under the navigable waters of six state waters—the Chattahoochee River, Hannahatchee Creek, the Flint River, the Ochlockonee River (two crossings) and the Withlacoochee River—in Stewart, Dougherty, Colquitt, Brooks, and Lowndes Counties for Spectra’s proposed Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline.  The proposed pipeline would travel through Georgia from Alabama to Florida.

GRN actively lobbied in opposition to SR 954 because the Sabal Trail’s proposed natural gas pipeline will provide no benefit to Georgians and threatens Georgia’s air, water, and communities.

SR 954 was initially and overwhelmingly rejected by the House—34 (yes) to 128 (no).  Then SR 954 was successfully amended to remove the Sabal Trail easements before passing the House unanimously—167 (yes) to 0 (no)—on sine die.

Measures That Did Not Survive Crossover Day or Sine Die

HB 966: Buffer Housekeeping

All of Georgia’s waterways are supposed to be protected by a 25-foot buffer according to the Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act. These protected areas help keep water clean, protect habitat for fish and wildlife, and prevent damage to stream-side property.
However, in the wake of Turner v. Georgia River Network, 773 S.E.2d 706 (Ga. 2015), current law states that only those streams with “wrested vegetation” are required to have buffers.  In other words, current law does not enable the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to consistently establish streamside buffers on all Georgia creeks, streams, and rivers.  The Georgia Supreme Court said this problem can be fixed only by the legislature.

GRN actively worked on House Bill 966, a measure that would have fixed the E&S Act’s confusing language so buffers are consistently applied to all of Georgia’s waters.

Representative, and former judge, Johnnie Caldwell, Jr. (R-Thomaston) sponsored HB 966 with a long list of bi-partisan co-sponsors, including many lawyers who understand the Georgia Supreme Court’s recommendation to clean-up the E&S Act.  Rather than assign the bill to the Judiciary Committee, as would be typical for a bill of this nature, HB 966 was assigned to the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee.  Committee Chairman Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan) elected not to allow the committee to vote on the bill on February 25, so the bill number died on Crossover Day.

SB 36: Protect Georgia’s Well Water

GRN has worked on ground water issues across south Georgia from the Dougherty Plain to the coast.  Current groundwater laws do not protect the health and safety of the public and the property rights of landowners.

Senate Bill 36, the Underground Water Supply Protection Act, would have fixed gaps in current laws and protects groundwater now and into the future.  The bill passed the Senate by a wide margin—48 to 3, and was stymied by the House Natural Resources and Environment committee chair.

SB 36 was good for Georgia, our economy, people, and children. SB 36 was a no-cost option requiring the Department of Natural Resources to write rules protecting our groundwater. These rules would have fixed gaps in our current laws—many of which only focus on surface water, water quantity not quality, and/or insufficiently regulate certain types of wells.  Finally, SB 36 would require action unlike a resolution (like House Resolution 1198) that merely suggested action.

SB 36 passed the Senate in 2015 and was bottled-up in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.  We look forward to working on this issue in the coming year.

HR 502: Putting the Trust Back in Trust Funds

House Resolution 502 called for a referendum to amend the Georgia Constitution.  HR 502 would have stopped Governors and legislators from raiding trust funds like the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds.  Most Georgians assume that the fees they pay for new car tires, for example, will pay to clean up abandoned tire dumps as required by law.  The fees designated for the two funds have collected about $450 million since the 1990s.  But the legislature has only appropriated about $264 million for the fees’ intended purposes.  The remainder has been directed to the state’s general budget. Only a constitutional amendment can fix this problem, which must be fixed.

HR 502 was introduced by Rep. Andrew Welch (R-McDonough) and was passed out of the House Ways & Means committee.  This resolution unfortunately died on Crossover Day.

SB 321: Utility Bill Secrecy

Senator Hunter Hill (R-Atlanta) sponsored Senate Bill 321. This bill will have undone a water and energy conservation ordinance adopted by the City of Atlanta in 2015.  SB 321 would have created a “Property Usage Protection Act” aimed to make water and energy consumption data from public utilities confidential and prohibit the state or local governments from reporting this information without express consent from property owners.  Additionally, SB 321 violated Home Rule principles where local governments are free to pass laws and ordinances as they see fit.

SB 321 passed out of the Senate Economic and Tourism committee on February 17, but thankfully did not survive Crossover Day.

SB 326: E&S Roll-back

Senate Bill 326 would have created an unworkable environment by handcuffing land disturbance permit reviews, and in effect cause greater downstream property damage by allowing more mud in our rivers, lakes and streams.

SB 326 would have made two harmful changes to the E&S Act. First, the bill would have required all plan reviewers to be state licensed professionals. Local governments and the Soil and Water Conservation District offices cannot afford to staff these positions with professional engineers.

Second, the bill would have reduced the time for application and plan review from 45 to 14 days. A 14-day window is not enough time to conduct a thorough plan review, including site visits and necessary due diligence to ensure that plans will sufficiently detain sediment from washing off the construction site and polluting our rivers, lakes, and creeks downstream.

SB 326 was introduced by Sen. Rick Jeffares (R-McDonough), and on February 24, the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities committee sent the bill into a study committee for further review.  Thankfully the bill did not survive Crossover Day.

-Chris Manganiello

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