Fall 2000 Newsletter

Coastal Georgia's Conditions & Trends: Is a Sustainable Region Possible?
Part Two in a Series of Three Articles

Population, Development, and Resource Demands
In the summer issue, the first installment of this three-part series summarized coastal growth trends and their implications. Among these trends are increasing rates of land clearing and disturbance, mounting risks of property damage due to flooding and storm hazards, and accelerating costs of public infrastructure and services needed to support growth. Despite the economic importance of commercial fishing, seafood processing, and tourism in this region, there are growing indications that environmental factors are still not being adequately evaluated in key decisions affecting the quality, diversity and productivity of vital natural resources.

Problems, Threats, and Alternatives
Ironically, at least part of the troubling trend threatening these nature-based jobs is undoubtedly a result of piecemeal, contradictory, and poorly planned economic development efforts, both local and statewide. Rampant growth in metropolitan Atlanta, at least half lying within coastal watersheds, has brought ever-increasing loads of eroded soil into coastal river systems. Sediments and storm runoff often carry fertilizers, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals, as well as waste from municipal treatment plants, septic systems, and various types of settling ponds. The Georgia Public Interest Research Group reports that in the last ten years alone, the amount of contaminants entering Georgia waters has increased by 430%. Even if it is assumed that most of this occurs legally, under EPD-issued permits, it is still an astounding figure, with undetermined but conceivably momentous consequences for Georgians, especially those living on the receiving end along coastal rivers and estuaries.

On a per-capita basis, compared with the state, coastal Georgian’s are exposed to nearly five times the state average amount of toxic contaminants (Georgia County Guide, 1999). This alarming fact is based on the Toxic Release Inventory, published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reporting data filed by those holding air- and water-discharge permits. This measure says nothing about contaminants from illegal dumping or permit violations, which are well known in our region, as well.

Less obvious are the seemingly benign activities throughout our expansive coastal river watersheds, which combine to impose still other serious environmental burdens -- maintenance of golf courses and suburban lawns, animal feeding operations, chemically-intensive agriculture and forestry, and ditching intended to improve drainage for agriculture and forestry operations. For example, while golf courses are not intensely developed, they are certainly not natural areas. Under current practices, golf courses use 18 times as much chemicals and irrigation water per acre as residential lawns, according to nationwide studies. These harmful chemicals can leach into ground-water supplies, be carried by rain into local creeks and rivers, and even be deposited by winds in other places, whether near or far from the source location.

Likewise, our pulpwood timberlands are not forests, but monocultures – supporting as little wildlife diversity as a cornfield. With some 60% of our non-tidal land areas being used for commercial forestry, overwhelmingly pulpwood, this land use has unquestionably reduced the region's environmental health. In addition to replacing natural ecosystems with monocultures, ditching done throughout vast areas of commercial timberland in the coastal plain is widely believed to result in compromised functions of freshwater wetlands. Such functions include the storage, filtration, retention, and slow release of water. By disturbing these functions, forestry has contributed to reduced wildlife diversity, lower freshwater and higher salinity in inter-tidal waters during periods of low rain. And the release of run-off with heavy rains, amplified by ditching, has undoubtedly added to erosion, sedimentation, and related contamination.

Another activity that is commonly overlooked as a major source of environmental threat is power generation. The Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia (now known as Georgians for Clean Air) reports in Southern Fried Air (September 1998) that coal-burning power plants in the Southeast are the source of at least 30% of the region’s mercury contamination. After being strewn by winds up to hundreds of miles, these mercury-carrying stack emissions fall onto land and eventually end up in water supplies, including coastal rivers and estuaries. The CPG reports that some 90% of these deposits are made more than 60 miles away from where they are generated, and fully 40% are carried 600 miles or more. There are eleven such plants in Georgia, plus another sixteen in neighboring states close enough to be a threat to our water quality and health, under prevailing winds. These sources are a prime suspect as one source causing the need for a recently announced mercury contamination warning on the Atlantic king mackerel, announced throughout the Southeast.

Due to the high cost of sampling and analysis, as well as underfunded environmental agency budgets, far too little is understood about the condition of our environment or the causes and implications of abnormalities. The 1998 report, National Watershed Assessment published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states that water quality in coastal Georgia rivers cannot be evaluated in three of the seven classifications used (including the criteria, ‘toxins’) due to a lack of data.

Although the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has responsibility for fisheries management and routinely samples for fecal coliform in shellfish beds (under federal requirements), until this year there was no comprehensive sampling of tissue, sediments, and water in coastal areas. As laudable as this new CRD/DNR effort is, it is still far from being sufficient enough to provide comprehensive resource management and protection of the public interest. Moreover, the coastal monitoring program has no enforcement authority other than being able to close down contaminated shellfish beds. Any discrepancies in coastal sampling must be turned over to the Environmental Protection Division, which is dominated by the priorities of Atlanta, and limited in its capacity to enforce regulations. An entirely separate question is the adequacy of existing laws and regulations.

Air Deposition & Water Pollution
Of the many threats to coastal ecosystems, probably the least commonly recognized are the many particulate materials that are deposited by distant smokestacks of industries and power plants. One reason why these contaminant sources are often overlooked is that they can be hundreds of miles away from the areas they adversely affect. But their distance from areas polluted do not diminish the potential harm caused by these sources. Older power plants release cumulatively enormous amounts of nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, the most common compounds that combine with water vapor to form producing acid rain, as well as mercury, a known carcinogen and threat to human central nervous systems. Those most likely to be affecting coastal Georgia are in Alabama, South Carolina, and upstate Georgia – some two dozen high-sulfur coal-burning power plants are in question.

A recent article in Coastlines, a publication of the Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, explains that, "In some places atmospheric deposition is known to be a significant portion of the total pollutant load to coastal waters, in others it is a minor component, while in many its significance is simply not known."

There are reasons to conclude that under our current circumstances, the relative threat of air deposition in coastal Georgia is unknown, but precautions are warranted. EPA's National Watershed Assessment finds that all five coastal Georgia rivers cannot be rated for water quality because data is insufficient, including measures of toxic chemicals. We do know that throughout the Southeast, the Atlantic king mackerel has been listed for ‘consumption advisories’ due to high levels of mercury contamination. Furthermore, the Atlanta-based organization, Georgians for Clean Energy warns that prevailing winds carry diverse power-plant pollution toward our region.

There are indications that atmospheric deposition is a problem for our region, but further research is needed. Undoubtedly, such pollution is a problem for some areas within our watersheds, and it is therefore likely to be moving downstream into coastal waters, if not being deposited in significant amounts directly on this area.

The US EPA is soon releasing a handbook providing further information for evaluating the problem of air deposition. It will explain what the public needs to know about monitoring, modeling, and determining sources of airborne pollution. If further studies show air deposition to be an important source of contamination, EPA outlines the implications for the area’s environment and the options available to managers, including a list of potential funding sources for offsetting costs of reducing continued environmental threats.

The handbook will be accessible on the EPA website page on air deposition, and may also be ordered in hard copy. For further information, see or call Debora Martin at (202) 260-2729.
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